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Kentucky Primary 2019: Bevin’s Republican Challengers

Peter Fitzgerald

There are three Republicans running to unseat Gov. Matt Bevin this year. None of them are very well-known or well-funded, but they all say that they don’t like the governor’s performance during his first term in office.

State Rep. Robert Goforth, real estate developer Ike Lawrence and school bus driver William Woods all want to beat Bevin in next week’s Republican primary.

It’ll be a big challenge for any of the candidates to take down a sitting governor. But polls show Bevin as the most unpopular governor in the country after a series of gaffes and inflammatory comments about teachers.

Goforth is the most well-funded of the candidates. He jump-started his campaign with a $750,000 loan of his own money in January, but he’s only raised about $16,000 besides that.

Goforth said he doesn’t like how Bevin has handled the pension crisis and criticizes the state pension board’s use of investment management fees.

“Since this governor has been the governor, he’s supposed to be investing our dollars wisely, but that pension board has paid out $400 million in management fees in 2016, 2017 and 2018 to his hedge fund cronies,” Goforth said in an interview in March.

Goforth is a pharmacist from East Bernstadt in eastern Kentucky. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives during a special election in 2018. He won reelection a few months later.

During his first year in office he got to see an incredible display of opposition to Bevin’s policies — when thousands of teachers repeatedly descended on Frankfort to protest proposed changes to the state’s pension systems.

This year, Goforth watched Bevin veto a bill that would provide financial relief to universities and small state agencies facing a massive spike in the amount they have to contribute to the pension system.

Goforth accuses Bevin of flip-flopping on the issue.

“I think it’s a political stunt because he realized there were more employees that were against the bill than for it and so it’s another political stunt like Matt Bevin always pulls on everybody,” Goforth said.

Ike Lawrence is a perennial candidate for elected office. Most recently he ran in the crowded race for mayor of Lexington last year.

Lawrence said he’s running because he can do a better job than Bevin.

“Gov. Bevin is big on bringing companies from outside to grow our economy. Right now he’s 0-for-2 in the two companies that he’s looking at,” Lawrence said during an interview in March.

Lawrence is critical of two big economic development initiatives Bevin has pushed — battery maker Enerblu was supposed to build a $300 million plant in Pikeville, but suspended the plans after the company said a primary investor pulled out. And he doesn’t like the Braidy Industries aluminum plant planned for Greenup County.

Lawrence also said he doesn’t support Bevin’s model of using tax incentives to attract companies to the state.

“I’m a big believer that this economic development that comes out of the treasury and the governor’s office isn’t working,” Lawrence said.

William Woods is a school bus driver from Corinth in Northern Kentucky. He’s a lifelong Republican and said he supported Bevin during the 2015 election, but his support waned after the governor made inflammatory comments about teachers.

He said Bevin is a bad role model for kids.

“They see enough of that at home. They don’t need to see it from elected officials. When you have a governor who goes out and calls public educators thugs, how sad is that?” Woods said”

Woods previously ran to be a state lawmaker in 2012, but lost in the Republican primary.

He said he doesn’t like the direction his party has been going in recent years and has some positions that don’t sound like other Republicans in the state.

For example, he supports keeping the Medicaid expansion and thinks Republicans are disingenuously pushing the abortion issue.

“Isn’t it funny how these bills get passed during election season to rile up the base? How bout riling up the base with a little honesty and saying ‘I don’t have the right to tell you what to do with your body, but if you’re going to have this done, are you sure? Do you need any advice, do you need any help?” Woods said.

Rep. Goforth is the only candidate who has bought any air time in support of his campaign.

Though none of the candidates have much name recognition, polls show Bevin as incredibly unpopular. It remains to be seen just how much they can chip away at his base.

Matt Markgraf from WKMS contributed to the reporting of this story.

This story first appeared on WFPL. For more stories like this, . 

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Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.