Pandemic policies, politics collide in divided Kentucky

Published 9:43 pm Thursday, August 25, 2022

As Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear defended his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and offered a spirited assessment of the state’s future after a series of tragedies, his predecessor Matt Bevin watched in the audience Thursday — fueling more speculation he wants a rematch.

Amplifying the drama built into a state with divided political leadership, Beshear was followed to the podium at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual country ham breakfast by Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who gave a blistering critique of the Democratic governor’s pandemic response.

Paul, who is seeking a third term this year in his campaign against Democratic challenger Charles Booker, said virus-related restrictions encroached on Kentuckians’ freedoms. The Democratic governor, who will be on the ballot next year, maintained that his measures saved lives.

But it was Bevin’s reemergence that added an element of surprise to the event, which draws the state’s top political leaders. The former Republican governor lost to Beshear in 2019 and has been out of the limelight since. Bevin’s legacy includes a flurry of pardons he issued in the waning days of his term. Several stirred outrage from victims or their families, prosecutors and lawmakers.

Bevin offered no hints Thursday on whether he’s preparing for a political comeback.

“I am planning to eat ham,” Bevin replied when asked if he’s planning to run for governor in 2023. He said he attended the event as a guest of business executives. Asked if he’s being encouraged to join the race, he said: “You get a lot of encouragement to do a lot of things in life. … It’s all good.”

Adding to the intrigue, Bevin attended a GOP dinner in Louisville on Wednesday night. Many political observers have speculated for the past year that Bevin might be weighing another run for governor.

Beshear is seeking a second term next year. He’s dealt with one crisis after another — first the global pandemic, then the devastation caused by tornadoes last December in western Kentucky and historic flooding last month that ravaged portions of eastern Kentucky. Despite the state’s strong Republican tilt, Beshear consistently receives strong approval ratings from voters.

Several alumni of Bevin’s administration attended the ham breakfast. Scott Brinkman, who served as a top-ranking executive to Bevin, said he’s had no conversations with his former boss regarding Bevin’s future plans.

The speculation did not stop with Bevin. Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, another potential GOP candidate for governor, also attended the ham breakfast but did not tip her hand.

“Do you think I’m going to give you my game plan?” Does coach Cal or coach Payne share their game plan on the pregame show? Absolutely not,” Craft said, referring to Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari and Louisville basketball coach Kenny Payne.

Republicans already in the race for governor are taking aim at Beshear’s handling of the pandemic, and Paul gladly joined the fray Thursday. The senator lavished praise on the state’s GOP-led legislature for reining in the governor’s virus policymaking power.

“I don’t care how bad the pandemic was,” Paul said. “I don’t care what the emergency was. The constitution still holds, and I’m incredibly proud of the state legislature for standing up and saying no one person should have all that power.”

Defending his pandemic-related actions, Beshear said early projections indicated the death toll from COVID-19 could soar to 80,000 or more in Kentucky. His restrictions were in place when there were no vaccines to combat the coronavirus. More than 16,600 people in Kentucky have died as a result of the virus, but people’s willingness to comply with the measures prevented more losses, he said.

“Our willingness to do things to save the life of the neighbor we know and the neighbor we have never met is why we have been more successful than most,” the governor said.

Beshear also touted the state’s unprecedented economic performance during his term, including record business investment and job creation. He said the state is poised for more growth.

“We have the chance to leave this commonwealth with more prosperity for generations to come than any of us had ever thought was possible,” Beshear said.

In their speeches, Kentucky’s Republican U.S. senators focused on the present — especially the soaring prices hitting consumers’ wallets.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Democratic-backed spending bills in Washington for fueling the surge in inflation, which hit a four-decade high this year.

“So the single-biggest problem facing the country is a direct result of the government making a gargantuan mistake last year and doubling down on it this year,” McConnell said.

Paul, who hails from the GOP’s libertarian wing, said Democratic-backed pandemic-relief measures created a “free-money syndrome” that helped sparked inflation.

“People are paying more in gas costs than they ever received from government,” Paul said. “Who does inflation damage the most? The working class, the poor, those on fixed incomes. All the people the ‘free-money people’ say they want to help.”