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Governor-Elect Matt Bevin Promises To Shake Up Kentucky Politics

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Matt Bevin is a millionaire who's never held office before. But in January, he will become the governor of Kentucky. He's a Republican, and he's promising to make big changes in a state that's been mostly governed by Democrats for the last half a century. Ashley Lopez of member station WFPL reports that Bevin's unpredictable political choices will keep the next four years interesting.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Matt Bevin has a knack for getting under people's skin, including important people in his own party. Here's one example. A month before the election, he said on a sports radio show that he supported Ben Carson for president.

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MATT BEVIN: I like Ben Carson. There's a lot about him that I think America would do well to have as...

MATT JONES: So you would not pick the Republican from Kentucky, Rand Paul?

BEVIN: At this point, I'm looking at people who I think would have the best chance of uniting all the pieces.

LOPEZ: Typically not supporting a fellow Republican from your state who is also running for office is just a bad political move. But in this case, it was also really awkward. That's because the day after Bevin endorsed Carson, Rand Paul was scheduled to endorse Bevin at a rally. So Bevin had to backtrack.

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BEVIN: And I'll put it out there because I know people are going to want to ask about it. This race is about governor, but he is running for president of the United States. And I truly believe he would be an extraordinary president of the United States. I really do.

LOPEZ: Bevin's political career is peppered with moments like this. He first ran for office last year and unsuccessfully challenged Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in a primary. It was a pretty nasty race, and after Bevin lost that race, he didn't endorse McConnell - yet another political rule broken. Bevin eventually mended fences with McConnell and Rand Paul who both supported his bid for governor.

TREY GRAYSON: So he's playing by a different set of rules, and I don't think you can dismiss some of that.

LOPEZ: That's Trey Grayson. He's Kentucky's former secretary of state and lost a Senate primary to then political newcomer Rand Paul in 2010. Grayson was the establishment politician in the Senate race. He says Bevin plays by his own rules in a way that has won over voters in the state.

GRAYSON: Everybody would agree that Matt Bevin brought a unique approach to politics. But also, he had this personality that has this charisma and this confidence.

LOPEZ: And Bevin laid on the charm throughout the entire campaign. Here's Bevin taking calls from listeners during a statewide public radio broadcast.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ninety percent of the things you've said I disagree with, so I definitely know I won't be voting for you. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Laughter) That's good.

BEVIN: You know, Joe, I love it. I appreciate your frankness. And honestly, that's the purpose of this in some measure. It really is. The point of having these discussions is so that people can have a frank conversation.

LOPEZ: Matt Jones is a popular sports radio host in Kentucky who has moderated two debates with Bevin. He says Bevin isn't trying to please everyone.

JONES: He says what he thinks, and he explains it. And if people don't like that, Matt is OK with it. Matt does not seem desperate for your vote.

LOPEZ: Jones is currently considering his own unconventional run for Congress as a Democrat. Jones says like Bevin, his ability to sound like a normal person is exactly what is appealing to voters these days.

JONES: I think that is something people are yearning for.

LOPEZ: Bevin has promised a top-to-bottom shakeup at the state's capitol. His biggest agenda item - scaling back the state's health insurance exchange and expansion of Medicaid, moves he believes will set a new tone in Kentucky.

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BEVIN: This is the chance for a fresh start. It truly is. And we desperately need it.

LOPEZ: For at least his first year in office, though, Bevin faces a Democratic majority in the state House, so it's likely Bevin's dustups won't end anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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