Gov. Matt Bevin didn’t show up to the state’s premiere political speaking event in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, last weekend. His absence came as his favorability rating hit a new low and rumors swirl over whether he will seek re-election next year. Meanwhile, Kentucky Democrats are trying to claw their way back into power, but are at a historic low point of registered voters and elected offices in the state.
For years Bevin has expressed distaste for Kentucky’s signature political event, which encourages politicians to roast their opponents in front of a rowdy audience of hecklers in western Kentucky.
Ken Mattingly is a Republican who drove in from Georgetown to the picnic. He really wanted to see Bevin.
“Disappointing. I don’t know how to interpret it," he says. "I think he should be down here. I was looking forward to his message. I like the governor because he’s a problem-solver, but sometimes you gotta get out and meet with the people.”
Mattingly is a state employee -- he works for the drug court in central Kentucky. He really wants Bevin to run again.
“I appreciate what he’s doing with the pensions because he’s funding the pension for the first time in a long time, we’ve got a politician, we’ve got a governor who’s being responsible to the workers of the state, to the retirees of the state. And he’s trying to solve the problem.”
Then there’s Mattingly’s friend Kathleen Lucy, a court worker from Hickman at the tip of the toe of western Kentucky.
She’s got two boys, one of whom is about to graduate college, and she’s steering them away from working in state government.
“For their future, I don’t know what they’re going to do for jobs. At this point I’m telling my oldest, don’t work for the state, don’t work for the state of Kentucky because I can’t promise what you’re going to get.”
Over the past decades, state lawmakers have gradually weakened pension benefits for new workers.
This year the legislature and Gov. Bevin passed a law that moves future teachers out of a conventional pension plan and into 401(k)-style retirement plans.
That’s triggered an onslaught of protests from educators like Kirk Haynes, a teacher from Owensboro Public Schools.
“I wouldn’t have been a teacher who thought I was politically active until I realized I needed to pay more attention to the retirement system that I’m a part of and listening to older teachers tell stories about the work conditions in Kentucky’s public schools. And I’m like, now it’s my turn to step up.”
Hundreds of teachers showed up to Fancy Farm this year. Besides Bevin’s general distaste for the event, it’s likely a contributing factor to why he didn’t show up.
And Bevin’s absence triggered some low-key digs from a Republican rival, U.S. Republican Jamie Comer, who lost to Bevin in a primary race by just 83 votes a couple years ago.
“TJ and I want to thank all the teachers all across the Commonwealth who work so hard and deserve the respect of the highest elected officials,” Comer said.
Bevin made several inflammatory statements about teachers over the last year, including a claim that teachers left their students vulnerable to sexual assault by protesting in Frankfort.
And Democrats like Attorney General Andy Beshear pounced at the opportunity to roast Bevin without any rebuttals.
“If you’re not willing to come down here where my family roots are to western Kentucky to see all of our families I think it’s time you move back to New Hampshire. And if that sounds like a lot of work, I know there’s 40,000 teachers to help you pack.”
Beshear is the only politician who’s tossed a hat in the ring for next year’s gubernatorial race.
But there are a lot of other Democrats waiting in the wings, like Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“A lot of people can’t see him winning in 2019," Grimes says of Bevin. "Even the Republicans don’t have nice things coming out of their mouths about him. That’s because he took away their vision and dental insurance.”
Though they still outnumber Republicans, Democrats are at a historic low-point of registered voters in the state—last month they dipped below 50 percent for the first time ever.
And the party lost control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century during the 2016 elections, giving Republicans control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion for the first time in state history.
Bevin hasn’t said whether he’ll seek re-election next year. He has until January 29 of next year.
This story comes from WFPL. For more stories like this, visit wfpl.org.