Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin refused to concede defeat after trailing his Democratic challenger by 5,000 votes in an election widely viewed as a barometer for the 2020 presidential race.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of former Democratic governor Steve Beshear, declared victory Tuesday night when final tallies showed him leading Bevin by a margin of 49.2 percent to 48.8 percent.
Wednesday morning the Associated Press was reporting the race is too close to call.
Bevin, unpopular with many voters for his efforts to reverse Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion and reduce teacher pensions, had hoped that a last-minute campaign appearance by President Donald Trump would push him over the top.
“If you lose, they will say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world,” the president said while pointing at a bank of news cameras at a rally in Lexington 12 hours before the polls opened. “You can’t let that happen to me, and you can’t let that happen to your incredible state.”
Trump, who won Kentucky by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016, said on Twitter his Kentucky appearance “had a massive impact on all of the races” and predicted that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell “will win big” in his re-election bid next year.
Donald Trump Jr. distanced his father from Bevin, telling Fox News host Laura Ingraham: “I think he’s done a good job, but Matt Bevin has picked some fights. This has nothing to do with Trump.”
Bevin is publicly identified as attending Southeast Christian Church – a Louisville megachurch with multiple campuses – but he has strong support among the state’s Southern Baptist leadership who share his evangelical faith and oppose things like abortion, gambling and medical marijuana.
“It’s good news for Kentucky that someone with Matt Bevin’s values has been elected convincingly,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler said in a news release dated Nov. 4, 2015. “Matt Bevin is a man of character; he is a Christian who loves the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Heading into Tuesday’s vote, Mohler declared “because of the issue of abortion, the election turns out to be actually a matter of life and death.”
In 2012 Bevin, a wealthy businessman, endowed the Bevin Center for Missions Mobilization at Southern Seminary, in honor of his daughter killed in a car wreck near the campus in 2003.
Bevin broke with tradition in 2015, announcing his inaugural worship service would not be at a downtown site in the state capital but rather at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, led by Hershael York, a Southern Seminary professor and past president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. The event was later moved to a larger venue, reportedly because so many people wanted to attend.
A 2016 article on the Baptist website Kentucky Today described Bevin as “an unabashedly Christian governor.” Asked about people who inspired him, according to the article, Bevin listed Mohler, Corrie ten Boom, Eric Liddell and Billy Graham.
On his Twitter page, Bevin describes himself as “Christian, husband, father, veteran.”
As governor, Bevin encouraged participation in “Bring Your Bible to School Day,” an annual event sponsored by the national Christian organization Focus on the Family.”
He signed a bill allowing Bible courses in public schools and declared 2017 the “Year of the Bible” in Kentucky.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced an investigation into whether Bevin used state resources for an Oct. 21 meeting with pastors described alternately as a “pre-election” rally and “an inspirational event.”
“Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta labeled Bevin “a Christian Nationalist.”
Others link him to Project Blitz, a concerted nationwide push by conservative Christian groups to establish state laws such as displaying “In God We Trust” in public buildings and permitting religion to be used to justify discrimination against homosexuals.
Pastors in the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship mocked Bevin in 2017 for suggesting “prayer walks” through violent neighborhoods as a solution to gun violence.
“If that’s the best the governor has to offer, he needs to go back to Frankfort,” said Joe Phelps, retired pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville and co-chair of Empower West, a partnership of black and white churches promoting economic development in the city’s predominantly African-American west end.
Religion became an issue in the 2019 gubernatorial race when Beshear ran a campaign ad touting the fact that his grandfather and great-grandfather were both Baptist ministers in Western Kentucky and saying they influenced his views on issues such as human trafficking, child abuse and families losing their health care.
Bevin fired back, calling the ad “insulting to the Baptist tradition.”
“I think it’s insulting to people of the Baptist faith to try to couch what his father and great grandfather did as sort of covering for his pro-abortion stance,” Bevin said.
“The question I ask of you is which side are you on?” the governor said. “If you are a Baptist pastor in Kentucky in 2019, which side are you on? Do you stand on the side of life? Do you and your congregations stand unapologetically on the side of life? Or do you stand, as Andy Beshear claims, on the side of pro-abortion, the side of taking the life of a child and of capitalizing on it in the blood money that comes from it to be able to be funding political campaigns?”
“There is no middle ground here,” Bevin said. “I’m asking every pastor of every Baptist church in Kentucky, weigh in and tell us where you stand on this issue. On the issue of life, which side are you on?”