Republicans trying to defend their majority in Kentucky's House of Representatives have had to do it with less public help from GOP Gov. Matt Bevin than they have had in the past — and some of them may prefer it that way.
Bevin was everywhere two years ago as he traveled the state stumping for candidates in a year that ultimately saw the GOP win a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years. But since then, his approval ratings have declined following critical comments of public school teachers who opposed his pension reforms.
Bevin has attended some rallies, including a Shelby County GOP event last week. But his declining presence on the campaign trail this year has been noticeable, especially since he is headed into a re-election campaign in 2019.
"He's been doing a lot more work behind the scenes," Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson said. "The best thing he can do for us is what he's been doing: Spend a lot of time out recruiting new businesses."
That "behind the scenes" work includes helping a political action committee, Kentucky Tomorrow Inc., pay for radio ads in some competitive House districts. The group's contributors include past Bevin campaign donors Matthew Toebben, Spencer Coates and Charles Price, who is also on the board of directors for Braidy Industries. That company is trying to build an aluminum mill in eastern Kentucky with the help of a $15 million state investment.
Eric Lycan, listed as Kentucky Tomorrow's registered agent and also the general counsel for the Republican Party of Kentucky, did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.
Kentucky Tomorrow Inc. has run radio ads supporting Republican candidates Josh Calloway in Irvington, Matthew Koch in Paris, Brian Clark in Ashland and Danny Bentley in Russell. They have run ads opposing Democratic candidates Jim Glenn in Owensboro and Jeff Greer in Brandenburg. One ad attacking Greer, an incumbent, referred to him as "Greedy Jeff Greer," saying he has put "teacher and police retirement benefits at risk by underfunding the state retirement system."
Greer said he has voted to increase pension funding by expanding gambling and borrowing money, but those bills died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Asked Thursday about Kentucky Tomorrow, Bevin said his primary focus is to "use whatever abilities I have and whatever network I have to be able to help people to be elected who will serve the people of Kentucky."
Bevin has focused most of the last two years on making changes to Kentucky's public pension system, among the worst funded retirement systems in the country.
His proposals have drawn fierce opposition from public school teachers, frustrating Bevin and his allies. In April, when thousands of teachers closed schools across the state to protest the changes, Bevin said he guaranteed a child had been sexually assaulted that day because they were likely left home alone with no school to go to. He later apologized.
Since then, the Democratic super PAC Kentucky Family Values has been running ads featuring Bevin to criticize Republican incumbents. Dave Cantarino, who runs the group, said Bevin's unpopularity between the 2016 cycle and the 2018 elections is like the difference between "night and day."
"He's unpopular in places where Trump is still very popular. I would say in eastern Kentucky ... you're seeing 50-point differences between Trump and Bevin," Cantarino said.
Bevin dismissed his poll numbers, telling reporters on Thursday "they've never been high."
"I have always been way south of 50 percent. And it was immaterial," he said. "To focus on those things is a waste of time."
On Thursday, Bevin traveled to Scott County to announce a long-awaited $26.1 million road project in the district of Republican Rep. Phillip Pratt, who is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Jenny Urie, a history teacher at Owen County High School. Pratt appeared with Bevin and shook his hand but said in an interview he has not asked Bevin to help with his campaign this year.
"The governor said some things that are inflammatory, make no doubt about that. I have rebuked him on Facebook," Pratt said. He noted when he campaigns in his district, he often tells voters about his votes to override Bevin's vetoes. Those include a two-year spending plan approved earlier this year that included a mix of income tax cuts and sales tax increases to help fund public education.
Despite that, Urie has portrayed Pratt as "just a rubber stamp for Gov. Bevin." Urie said Bevin is "a huge reason why I filed to run."
"He really has a vendetta against public education," she said. "I'm not sure where that comes from."
Since Bevin took office, the Republican-controlled legislature has authorized billions of dollars to fund the teachers' retirement system. The Kentucky Teachers Retirement System noted the $2 billion appropriation over the next two years fully funds the annual required contribution "for the first time in more than a decade.