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Why pro-Trump Kentucky is facing such a competitive governor’s race

The Kentucky governor’s race is one of three gubernatorial contests that will serve as key tests of Republican strength ahead of the 2020 presidential election. President Trump is campaigning there Monday for the incumbent, Matt Bevin, who’s facing a very tight race on Tuesday against Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general. William Brangham reports from the Bluegrass State.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are three major governor's races under way right now. Each offers a critical early test of Republican strength in advance of the 2020 presidential election.

    One of those races is tomorrow in Kentucky, where President Trump tonight is campaigning for the incumbent, Matt Bevin.

    William Brangham went to the Bluegrass State this weekend to see what's motivating voters in this very tight race.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Well, hello, Kentucky!

  • William Brangham:

    Ahead of the president's arrival, the vice president kicked off the final few days of the campaign, rallying supporters in rural Kentucky.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Once we reelect Governor Matt Bevin for four more years, we can make it clear we're going to reelect President Donald Trump for four more years.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    The fact that President Trump and Vice President Pence felt the need to come here to rally supporters, to Kentucky, a state that Donald Trump won by 30 points in the last election, that is not a good sign for the GOP in this state.

    The incumbent Republican Matt Bevin, is in a neck-and-neck race with this man, Kentucky's attorney general, Democrat Andy Beshear. But at Friday's rally with the vice president, and elsewhere, we heard a lot of confidence that Governor Bevin will win.

  • Margaret Ann Hatfield Rader:

    I support him wholeheartedly. I like his character. I like what he stands for and I like the platform.

  • Gov. Matt Bevin:

    You're promising things for which you have zero plan to actually come up with the money.

  • Andy Beshear:

    I'm promising vision and leadership.

  • Gov. Matt Bevin:

    You have none of the above.

  • William Brangham:

    The latest polling shows Bevin and Beshear in a virtual dead heat, which has turned this into a nasty and expensive campaign.

  • Narrator:

    Socialists in Washington want to impeach Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    Ads supporting Bevin routinely link Beshear to events back in Washington, D.C.

  • Narrator:

    Send the socialists a message. Defeat Andy Beshear.

  • Andy Beshear:

    We treat everyone with respect.

  • William Brangham:

    Beshear ads, on the other hand, tend to focus almost entirely on local issues.

  • Andy Beshear:

    He's tried to rip health care away from our families and he's cutting public education. We can't take four more years.

  • William Brangham:

    There's a few reasons why the race is so tight. One, Andy Beshear has strong name recognition. His dad, Steve Beshear, was Kentucky's last governor.

    But Governor Bevin has also hurt himself with some key groups in Kentucky.

  • Protesters:

    United, we stand for schools and teachers!

  • William Brangham:

    In 2018, teachers protested education and pension funding. Governor Bevin suggested that with schools closed because of the walkout, some children risked being sexually assaulted.

    He also called protesting teachers selfish and ignorant. It's all made Bevin one of the most unpopular incumbents in the nation.

  • Woman:

    This is about making sure they show up on Tuesday.

  • William Brangham:

    It's driven many teachers and other state employees to work hard to unseat Bevin. This gathering, largely made up of educators in the Lexington area, were getting ready to canvass voters for Andy Beshear.

  • Nema Brewer:

    They are trying to make it look like that, you know, Andy is a socialist. Let me tell you, if you can find a socialist, a full, like, through-the-core socialist in the state of Kentucky, I will kiss your hind end.

  • William Brangham:

    These volunteers, mostly Democrats, but also a few Republicans, said that there was a host of issues on their minds, ranging from clean water to corporate money in politics.

    Claire Batt is a Democrat. Denise Finley has been a lifelong Republican. Both are retired schoolteachers and longtime friends, and they spent much of Saturday trying to remind likely Beshear voters to turn out on Tuesday.

  • Woman:

    So, you and your wife are both planning to vote?

  • Man:

    Oh, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    What do you guys think is most at stake in this election?

  • Denise Finley:

    Our children. Our children. I'm emotional about the education of our children.

  • William Brangham:

    Both women say that if this race is fought on local issues, Beshear will win. But they worry that the enormously popular President Trump and the impeachment battle will energize Republicans to show up in droves for Bevin.

    If you could have told the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C., would you have liked them to say, hold off on this impeachment stuff for another week? Let us have an election without stoking the fires?

  • Claire Batt:

    In a sense, yes. And I sort of hate to say that, because I think they have to follow the…

  • William Brangham:

    That investigation.

  • Claire Batt:

    The and how it unrolls.

    I think it really has caused issues for us here in Kentucky, because they use it. And that's why Trump is coming, too.

  • William Brangham:

    Some Republicans, like Mark Williams, a veteran and retired firefighter, agrees that impeachment will fire up voters, but on both sides.

  • Mark Williams:

    I see it as a political scam.

  • William Brangham:

    The impeachment process?

  • Mark Williams:

    The impeachment process, yes. I think it's just a way to try to sway voters in 2020.

  • William Brangham:

    So do you think that that's going to have any impact on people's votes here?

  • Mark Williams:

    Oh, I think it will, yes, yes, especially with — the whole United States is sort of divided right now. And I think it will help give fuel to the other fire.

  • William Brangham:

    Williams has one of his neighborhood's only Matt Bevin signs in his front yard. He likes the governor and President Trump, for a trait they both share.

  • Mark Williams:

    I think more politicians should go with straight talk, simply because you can understand Matt Bevin. He will tell you what he wants and how he wants it. You don't have to follow a riddle to get to the answer.

  • William Brangham:

    For Republicans, this race will test whether the president's popularity, combined with outrage over impeachment, is enough to push an unpopular incumbent across the finish line.

    For Democrats, they say this race is the ultimate test: If they can't win the statehouse under these conditions, it spells serious trouble for the party in 2020.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Kentucky.

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