LEXINGTON — When Sen. Mitch McConnell scheduled a historical speech at Transylvania University for a week and a day after the election for governor, he wasn’t sure who would win. And the state’s top Republican hasn’t seemed all that excited about the triumph of factional foe Matt Bevin.
But the speech was timely because the GOP success in this month’s election came close to completing Kentucky’s evolution into a truly Republican state – a process that began with a 1956 race that was the centerpiece of McConnell’s talk. And some of his points brought current events to mind.
McConnell spoke on the major players in a 1956 Senate election: A.B. “Happy” Chandler, who was in his second term as governor; his Democratic factional foe, U.S. Sen. Earle Clements; and Republican Thruston Morton of Louisville, who thwarted Clements’ re-election bid with Chandler’s help.
The election gave Kentucky two Republican senators, and the state voted Republican for president for the first time since 1928. Since then, it has voted Democratic for president only when a Southerner was the party nominee; Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win a statewide federal race in Kentucky, in 1996.
But 40 to 60 years ago, as McConnell pointed out, Republicans needed deep factional division among Kentucky Democrats to win.
That was provided mainly by Chandler and Clements, who had been in opposite factions since the 1930s but were both “intensely ambitious” men who “rose from modest origins” in Western Kentucky, were good athletes and coaches, and had a gift for remembering names and faces, McConnell noted.
They were also very different, he said: “Happy was colorful, an extrovert, literally larger than life,” and a great speaker, which Clements was not. As the naturally dour McConnell channeled Chandler, who usually lived up to his nickname, the anecdotes fell a bit flat, but still drew laughs from the audience, where Happy’s grandson, former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, sat front and center.
McConnell didn’t use the most-often repeated quip about his chief protagonists: Clements didn’t care who was governor as long as he could run the state, and Chandler didn’t care who ran the state as long as he could be governor.
But McConnell made a good point, that one of Chandler’s hallmarks was audacity: as acting governor in 1935, calling a legislative session to require primary elections; and as governor in 1938, challenging Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley in the Democratic primary and jumping into a car with Barkley and President Franklin D. Roosevelt when FDR came to campaign for Barkley.
McConnell showed some audacity in challenging Jefferson County Judge Todd Hollenbach in 1977 and Sen. Walter D. Huddleston in 1984, winning both races. But he is more like Clements as he described him: “reserved and methodical, leaving nothing to chance,” and a politician who “thrived in the Senate.”
McConnell’s larger point, about the usefulness of Democratic factionalism to Republicans, also resonates today – as the man he soundly defeated in last year’s Senate primary, and who refused to endorse him for re-election, is about to become governor.
Republicans have long had factions of a sort, but McConnell suppressed them for two decades, preventing a social-conservative takeover of the state party in 1993, guiding Christian conservative Ron Lewis to a special-election victory in the Second District in 1994, and helping flip two Democrats to put the state Senate its first Republican majority in 1999.
As Republicans ran the chamber with a two-vote majority, McConnell urged Senate President David Williams to keep the GOP caucus together, and Williams did, which helped the caucus grow and prevented factions.
But more recently there has been audacity, and factionalism has loomed.
McConnell miscalculated in 2009 when he audaciously forced seatmate Jim Bunning into retirement and backed then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson to succeed him. Rand Paul, whose candidacy first seemed audacious, won the primary and became the putative leader of a more conservative GOP faction. But McConnell moved smartly to embrace Paul, who endorsed him for re-election over Bevin, a more natural ally.
Bevin showed audacity by challenging McConnell, but in losing he built a following that won him this year’s primary by 83 votes. Now he is in a position to create a faction of his own, with the vast powers of the governorship.
However, Bevin has indicated that he intends to govern more as a conservative than as Republican, and he has likened himself to Democratic Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. (1979-83), another multi-millionaire who self-financed his campaigns and said he was obligated to no one. Brown largely ignored state party matters, but he couldn’t succeed himself, as Bevin can.
Bevin has few obligations because he avoided using most of the traditional Republican network in his campaign, but he could incur more obligations if he raises money to get back his campaign loans.
So, the two Republicans who ran such a bitter race against each other last year have a political party to run, but one has a state to run. He seems to be getting first-class help.
The new state Republican chair is retired Louisville distiller Mac Brown, an ally of both Paul and McConnell and one of the few old-line Republicans to hold a major fund-raiser for Bevin. He also heads the Bevin transition, which is off to a good start with Bevin’s addition of Blake Brickman as chief of staff and Steve Pitt as general counsel.
A key factor in the Bevin-McConnell equation will be Senate President Robert Stivers. His wife, Regina, works for McConnell, but Stivers has been working with Bevin on transition ideas for months, and Bevin surely understands that his relationship with Stivers is one of the most important he has.
To sum up, with McConnell’s terms: Bevin is more like Chandler, a good natural politician and speaker with some audacity, qualities that helped him win. But he will need the careful governing and political skills of Clements and McConnell to succeed in office.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.