Kentucky's GOP Must Unite Behind Winner In Primary For Governor
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's been something akin to a civil war in the Republican Party. Upstart candidates, often backed by the tea party, have taken on the establishment. And that conflict created a backdrop for a primary for governor held last week in Kentucky. The man who came out on top is Matt Bevin. He's a Tea Party favorite, who, last year, challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a primary and lost badly. Now, he needs McConnell's support. Bevin eked out a win in a crowded race. Now, the question is whether the party can unite behind him. Ashley Lopez of member station WFPL reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Bevin came out ahead in a three candidate primary that just 17 percent of the state's voters took part in. Republican strategist Scott Jennings does the math.
SCOTT JENNINGS: You have to remember he got 5.5 percent of the entire Republican Party to vote for him in this election.
LOPEZ: Jennings says one reason Bevin's in a tough spot now is because of how he treated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last year. Bevin challenged the long-serving senator in a primary election and lost badly. He also broke a basic rule of political etiquette and didn't endorse McConnell after he lost. Bevin now needs McConnell's help to win the governor's office in November, so Bevin has changed his tune. During a recent event in Lexington, he told a Republican group meeting at a steakhouse that he supported McConnell this entire time.
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MATT BEVIN: I literally know of no elected official in this state who went to more events between May and November in support of candidates and in support of Mitch McConnell, in support of other down ticket races than I did.
LOPEZ: But no one's buying this. Jennings, a former political adviser to McConnell, says Bevin is now paying for that mistake.
JENNINGS: Had he just taken the 15 minutes it would have taken to drive down to headquarters and endorse McConnell last June or July, I think he would be having a lot easier time right now having come off a primary where he won by only 83 votes.
LOPEZ: McConnell is really popular in Kentucky, and Bevin could use all the help he could get at this point. Bevin has to win a general election against Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who is leading in the polls. Jennings says Kentucky Republicans are already working with a few disadvantages ahead of the general election. For one, Republicans have won just one governor's race in the past four decades. Another big challenge is that one of Bevin's main campaign promises is popular with Tea Party voters but may not appeal to voters in a general election.
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BEVIN: We will dismantle the Kynect program by the end of 2016.
LOPEZ: Kynect is Kentucky's state-run health insurance exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act. Half a million Kentuckians have health insurance for the first time, thanks to the exchange and an expansion of Medicaid.
JONI JENKINS: I am very surprised that anyone at this point would say they wanted to do away with it completely.
LOPEZ: That's Democratic State Representative Joni Jenkins, who chairs the budget committee that oversees health programs. Jenkins says Bevin's plan is politically toxic.
JENKINS: You're talking about taking a benefit away from folks that didn't have it before, and it's been highly, highly popular in Kentucky.
LOPEZ: Democrats control Kentucky's House of Representatives. Jenkins says even if Bevin wins and issues an executive order eliminating Kynect, it will eventually have to go before state lawmakers. The state GOP planned a unity rally this weekend, but McConnell recently told the press he won't be there. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.