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Analysis: How Bevin Is Trying To Turn Kentucky’s Election Into A Referendum On Abortion

J. Tyler Franklin

First, on August 1, Gov. Matt Bevin held a press conference to attack Andy Beshear for attending a fundraiser co-hosted by Ernest Marshall, a doctor and co-founder of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the only clinic in Kentucky that provides abortions. He accused Beshear of “accepting blood money” and suggested Democrats are “using money from killing Kentuckians to fund Andy Beshear.”

Two days days later, in a speech at Fancy Farm, Bevin’s running mate, Ralph Alvarado, referred to the attorney general as “Abortion Andy.” Last week, Bevin released a Facebook video attacking Beshear in which he used the word abortion seven times in less than three minutes. A day later, Bevin held an event to highlight four anti-abortion bills that Kentucky’s legislature adopted and the governor signed into law earlier this year.

Bevin, like Republican candidates often do, is highlighting his opposition to abortion (and his Democratic opponent’s support of a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy). But the governor, in my view, is going a step beyond that — he’s effectively trying to make this election a referendum on abortion policy, a move that has very important potential implications.

Linking Political Parties With Identity

I will start with the potential societal impact of Bevin’s abortion-centric messaging. When I saw Bevin’s video and recalled his remarks about “blood money and “killing Kentuckians,” I thought of how President Trump has cast illegal immigration in similarly moralistic terms. More than 3,000 abortions were conducted in Kentucky in 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute. (That is the most up-to-date information we have.) Even if that number has declined, it’s likely that hundreds and maybe even thousands of abortions have happened in Kentucky since Bevin has been governor. He probably sincerely feels (aside from any electoral concerns) that these abortions are an abomination and that the doctors who performed them should be condemned.

Bevin, through his video, has now essentially suggested that no candidate should take campaign contributions from someone who provides abortions and that donations given by those who perform abortions are “blood money.” This is akin to how Democrats treat white supremacists–no candidate should take money or be associated with them. Conservative politicians have long opposed abortions, but I argue Bevin’s approach is an escalation in anti-abortion rhetoric.

He is making that view (no good person could accept campaign donations from a doctor who performs abortions) even more explicit for Kentucky’s Christians. (About 75 percent of Kentucky adults identify as Christians, according to Pew Research Center data.)

“The question I ask of you is, ‘which side are you on, if you are a Baptist pastor in Kentucky in 2019? Which side are you on? Do you and your congregations stand unapologetically on the side of life?” Bevin asks in the video, which was a response to a Beshear campaign commercialin which the attorney general both notes his own Christian faith and talks about how his grandfather and great-grandfather were Baptist pastors.

“There is no middle ground here … I’m asking every pastor of every Baptist church in Kentucky to weigh in and tell us where you stand on this issue. On the issue of life, which side are you on?” Bevin asks.

After the release of the video, Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Jack Brammer asked Bevin the question that the video implied: does the governor think someone can be a Christian and support abortion rights?

“God alone knows the answer to that. It’s not for  … any human being to decide if a person is a Christian or not,” Bevin said in response.

Even if he is not ready to declare that those who support abortion rights are not true Christians, Bevin’s video strongly implied that all of Kentucky’s Baptist pastors should implore their members to back the anti-abortion candidate (him) and that there is basically no neutral ground on this issue.

Bevin’s linking of policy (abortion), partisanship (this is a political campaign) and identity (the references to Baptists and pastors) was likely not accidental. And his approach both illustrates and contributes to one of the most complicated problems in today’s politics. Some scholars argue that the partisan divide in America is hardening in part because the two parties are increasingly about identities, not policies. In other words, the Democratic Party is better understood as the party of atheists, urbanites, African-Americans and other blocs than the party of larger government; similarly, the Republicans are not so much the party of smaller government as the party of gun rights enthusiasts, evangelical Christians, people who live in rural areas and other groups that align with the GOP.

You can see why this is a huge problem — it’s easier to reach compromises and have political debates if one party is the “higher taxes party” and the other the “lower taxes party;” it’s more divisive if one party is the party for white people and Christians and the other for people of color and non-Christians.

So it is probably electorally smart in the short term for Bevin to imply that being a Christian means that you have to be anti-abortion and therefore back the anti-abortion candidate. But it may not be good for Baptist churches in Kentucky or even the Republican Party of Kentucky in the long term to imply anyone who does not support abortion rights is not welcome. I think it is unquestionably bad for people like me worried about identity-based hyper-partisanship for the governor to call out Baptist pastors in the way that he did.

An End To Abortion In Kentucky?

Let me move to the policy impact of Bevin’s language. Candidates tend to assume, rightly or wrongly, that they have a mandate to act on issues that they campaign on. If Bevin wins re-election while talking about abortion non-stop, I would expect him to act as if Kentuckians have re-elected him because of his strong opposition to abortion. So I would assume the governor will work very hard in a second term to find some way to use his executive power to ensure that the EMW clinic either closes or stops performing abortion. If the clinic closed, abortion would in effect be eliminated in Kentucky even if Roe v. Wade remains on the books.

And if Bevin is able to stop all abortions in this state, other governors in red states might try to follow in his footsteps. (Missouri is also down to one abortion clinic, with the state’s GOP-run government, like the Bevin administration, trying to use regulatory power to close it.)

I’ll address in a subsequent piece whether Bevin’s rhetoric will have any actual electoral impact. But that’s not the whole story. Win or lose, Bevin has raised the stakes of this election even more by essentially saying, in his view, this is not just a race about Democrats and Republicans, but about Christianity, faith and morals.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.


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