Matt Bevin Struggles to Stand Out Without Mitch McConnell as Foil

The tea-party darling of 2014 is trying to run for governor of Kentucky this year. But he is having trouble making his own way after a debut campaign defined by his opponent.

ERLANGER, Kentucky—As Matt Bevin addressed a hotel ballroom full of voters gathered to hear from Republican gubernatorial candidates last week, a ceiling light dislodged just shy of where Bevin's primary opponents sat watching. The light dangled ominously for a moment, threatening to fall, but Bevin didn't miss a beat.

"See? Even the people higher than us agree," Bevin ad-libbed, his warm, breezy response eliciting the biggest laugh of the two-hour event. "I'm not saying that's a sign or anything."

The performance highlighted Bevin's ample charisma, a characteristic that wonky business forums don't always draw out of candidates. Trey Grayson, the head of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which put on the event, said afterward that he thought Bevin's showing was one of his best yet. "He's funny, he's likable," said Grayson, a former Republican officeholder who moderated the forum. "If you sat there and didn't really know anything about the four of them, you would be impressed with him."

Yet Kentuckians already know plenty about Bevin, much of it unflattering. The businessman drew a sharp contrast with Sen. Mitch McConnell in a primary last year, and McConnell spared no expense crushing his rival. The year before becoming Senate majority leader, McConnell and his team criticized Bevin for a LinkedIn profile claiming that he graduated from MIT (he didn't), evidence that he once supported the federal bank bailout before railing against it, and, most damaging of all, Bevin's speech at a pro-cockfighting rally, for which he had to apologize.

Despite Bevin's personal gifts, his campaign did best in 2014 when it focused on the senator and worst when the spotlight was on him. Now as a candidate for governor, he is trying to run a pro-Bevin campaign—not an anti-McConnell one. But instead of building a foundation last year for future office, as many first-time candidates often do despite losing, Bevin may have just dug a hole.

Bevin insists he has no regrets, and he said he'd "absolutely" challenge McConnell again if he had a do-over. Bevin also said in an interview that he'd been more than the "anti-McConnell" and that he's optimistic he can win on his own merits.

"I don't think it was as simple as that. There were five people in that race, and so frankly I think it's unfair to the four other people. They were also not him. I mean the reality of course was that he wasn't me, either," said Bevin.

At times, though, it seems like Bevin is doing all he can to put last year's loss behind him. He's spent the months since he entered the race traveling to dozens of Republican county Lincoln Day dinners across the state. There's no mention of McConnell in his stump speech, which focused last year on McConnell having "gone Washington" but now paints broader ideological strokes while honing in on specifics like eliminating Kynect, the state health-insurance exchange, and repealing the law that expanded Medicaid coverage in the state.

After one such fundraising dinner in Frankfort last Thursday night, Bevin's said his rationale for running for governor is simple. "I still live here," Bevin told National Journal. I'm still a businessman here. I'm still a husband and a father here, and so there are needs I think I can address."

And yet, Bevin clearly views his current campaign as a continuation of that Senate primary effort. "I just continue to pack the miles on. The difference is I get to go back to places I've already been. From that standpoint you put your foot on the gas and you just keep working."

Kentucky political analyst Al Cross thinks it's possible Bevin could yet offer a compelling message in the gubernatorial race. But before he can do that, he has to contend with a problem. "He is not viewed by a majority of these Republican primary voters as a credible messenger," Cross said.

The tea-party activists who awarded Bevin hero status last year have plenty to like about his opponents, including their fatter résumés. The national groups who funneled him money to take down McConnell don't take as much interest in governors. And the team Bevin ran against still remains atop Kentucky's political pyramid, watching (and mocking) his moves.

Without Goliath in the room, Bevin has just been one of the guys in 2015. His rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nomination include James Comer, the state agriculture commissioner and former legislator who has been laying groundwork for this campaign for years; Hal Heiner, a self-made Louisville businessman and former city-council member whose millions have made him a major contender; and Will Scott, a former Kentucky Supreme Court justice.

Arrayed against them, Bevin so far has not been able to cobble back together the coalition that got him over a third of the 2014 primary vote—a share that might be enough to win an open race this year.

Erik Hermes, the president of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, said around 90 percent of his group's members united behind Bevin last year. But it seems like they may have simply been unified around defeating McConnell. Now, Hermes says those members would be happy with any of the four candidates as the Republican nominee.

"He's probably the best speaker," Grayson said of Bevin. "But it's much more philosophical. Jamie, Hal, and Will have much more knowledge of local, state government, and you see that."

National conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Madison Project that bolstered Bevin's efforts last year are also unlikely to come to bat for him this time. "They don't tend to get involved in state races," Bevin conceded.

And many former Bevin staffers and volunteers are now working for his primary rivals. One, former Bevin field rep Katie Moyer, is now volunteering for Comer.

"A lot of [Bevin's] name ID is actually negative name recognition, and I think that he may have overestimated that name recognition as a positive thing," said Moyer. "That's a challenge that I don't think is overcome-able."

Like many Kentucky Republicans, Moyer had been anticipating a Comer gubernatorial run "for a long time," well before Bevin even ran for Senate, much less filed for the governor's race two hours before the January 2015 deadline. Comer and Heiner are seen as the top-tier contenders, and both gobbled up supporters long before Bevin entered the race at the last minute this winter.

Bevin, who never got fully behind McConnell after last year's Senate primary, himself acknowledges this is a different situation.

"There are four good candidates," Bevin said at the Chamber of Commerce forum, "and I can tell you right now, there's not one of these men that I don't consider a friend and that I would not support in a heartbeat over Jack Conway," the Democrats' standard-bearer and state attorney general. "I can say that unequivocally," Bevin finished.

Though Bevin's supporters are dispersed and his strengths diluted absent McConnell, astute political observers aren't ready to totally write him off. Bevin's potential to self-fund his campaign could yet have a huge effect in the final weeks of the primary. Bevin, who gave his Senate campaign $1.25 million last year, said Thursday he does plan to put some of his own money into the race but wouldn't disclose how much. Since Kentucky puts a $1,000 limit on individual donations in state races, personal millions could go a long way toward rehabilitating his name ID. Heiner has earned his place among the early favorites by way of a barrage of TV ads funded with his own millions

Even if Bevin's not exactly taking off in the primary—what limited polling there is has shown him in second place at best—he's still having an impact. Bevin is squeezing votes away from Comer, the ag commissioner who has been positioning himself for this campaign for years. Needless to say, Comer is not impressed by Bevin's presence in the primary.

"Just watching him in the U.S. Senate race, he would say anything or do anything," said Comer. "Obviously, Matt Bevin has the right to run and he made the decision to run. It's really a nonfactor for me. I don't see a lot of support for Matt Bevin out there."

"You cannot write [Bevin] off because of his money," said Cross. "Heiner's put himself in a leading position by virtue of his money. And it's possible that Bevin could be like a blind hog that found an acre and come up with something. But I think it's unlikely."

Despite a new year and new campaign, Bevin's last effort hangs over everything he does. Indeed, the same logo adorns Bevin's campaign signs and website this year—just with "Senate" swapped out for "governor."