For Bevin, observers say advertising and messaging key to unofficial GOP nomination

05/20/2015 09:24 PM

Unofficial Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin may have some mud on his hands after a bitter primary battle, but GOP observers say the Louisville investment manager’s campaign gradually built momentum thanks in large part to slick advertising and solid performances on the debate and chicken-dinner circuits.

Not many predicted Bevin would top the four-man field Tuesday, and he almost didn’t after squeaking by with an 83-vote victory that may be in peril with a recanvass requested by second-place finisher Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

But Bevin emerged from his first foray in politics — a nearly 25-point drubbing at the hands of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last May’s Senate primary — and did something few do after immediately tangling with Kentucky’s most powerful Republican: He won, unofficially, in a high-profile race.

Only Gov. Steve Beshear has climbed the political ladder after tussling with McConnell politically, winning his first term as governor 11 years after losing to McConnell in 1996.

“Who was the best communicator, who was the most dynamic, who was the best on camera, and who was best during debates? It was Matt Bevin,” said Republican consultant Ted Jackson, who backed Comer in the GOP primary.

“That’s the simplistic view for a lot of people to talk about, ‘Well Mitch killed him so therefore he’s not viable,’” he continued. “Well, let’s think about this. Now in a four-person primary if he gets anywhere close to that number he got against Mitch (35.42 percent of the vote) as a percentage he wins and he did (32.91 percent of the vote), and if this holds up for him then he’s a giant-killer and he has the momentum going into the general election, maybe in a way that neither one of these other guys would have had.”

Bevin bore the brunt of McConnell’s and his supportive super political action committees’ relentless assaults, but outside spenders supporting former Louisville Metro Councialman Hal Heiner in the gubernatorial race divided their attention between Bevin and Comer. Kentuckians for Growth, Opportunity and Prosperity, a pro-Comer super PAC, did not air a negative ad against Bevin.

Scott Jennings, who directed pro-McConnell groups last year, said super PACs never “laid a glove” on the unofficial nominee in this year’s primary compared to last year, when Bevin “got hit much harder.”

“I actually don’t think he was hit that hard in the primary,” Jennings said. “My view is Comer and Heiner hit each other pretty hard, but I don’t actually think anybody really ever laid a glove on Matt Bevin, and I think that’s why he was able to essentially go around the other two front runners.”

Jennings called Bevin’s direct-mail pieces “fantastic” and said he produced arguably the most memorable television ad of the 2015 primary when he cast Comer and Heiner in a faux food fight.

Grayson Smith, a former Comer and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers aide who supported Heiner, said Bevin appeared more confident on the campaign trail — “There’s no greater tool than experience,” he noted — and built a following on the Lincoln Day Dinner circuit.

And, like Jackson, Smith said the contention between Comer, who faced accusations of abusing a college girlfriend and escorting her to an abortion clinic, and Heiner, whose running mate’s husband communicated with a blogger pushing the allegations, provided an opening for Bevin.

Undecided voters “really broke toward Bevin,” Smith said, noting he’s never seen “a more improved, polished candidate from basically 365 days apart.”

“Let’s say the last weekend, last four or five days including the weekend before the election when I was contacting and talking to people out in west Kentucky, it sounded like Bevin was getting the majority of the undecideds to break toward him, and you could see that there was a movement going on there,” he said. “And momentum is the most difficult thing to stop whenever it’s moving in a particular way.”

Winning in a primary doesn’t necessarily portend success in a general election, however.

Bevin will likely need more than his wallet to defeat Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who had nearly $1.4 million in his campaign coffers compared to Bevin’s $61,382 as of 15 days before the primary. Of the $1.83 million raised by Bevin, $1.75 million came from his personal wealth, according to his campaign finance reports.

Jackson said Bevin should have little difficulty raising money with the primary behind him and McConnell’s endorsement while Jennings and Smith aren’t so sure.

“I think the political reunification is really actually not going to be that difficult,” Jennings said. “The real question is the donor base, which in two elections has demonstrated no interest whatsoever in donating to Matt Bevin. He raised virtually no money in ’14 or ’15, so this is a guy who has still after two races not proven any ability to compete for the sort of traditional GOP donor base.

“He’s going to have to try to do that now, and so having the political establishment and the political hierarchy of the party back him will be good and that offers credibility, but I think what Bevin is going to find is he’s going to have to work in a hand-to-hand fashion to try to court that GOP donor base.”

Bevin — who built sizable leads in northern Kentucky’s three counties and carried a number of central Kentucky counties, including Fayette, and counties in the Louisville media market and to the west, such as Daviess — will have to take steps to mend fences and request help from Kentucky’s congressional delegation, Smith said, noting Bevin will “need to rent” their establishment network during the general election.

While Jennings said he expects Bevin to fare well against Conway given how well generic Republicans poll against the Democratic attorney general, Smith said Bevin will have to tailor his remarks on the stump to a general-election audience.

“I think there are going to be some issues that Matt Bevin needs to moderate himself on a little bit,” Smith said.

“How exactly he does that and which issues those are, that remains to be seen. I think it will be interesting to see what kind of campaign team he puts around him moving forward. When you go into a general election like this, it’s pretty standard to make some adjustments and make some changes as far as your campaign team.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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