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In Kentucky, the Trump Playbook Is Already Familiar

While Trump remakes American politics at the federal level, profound policy shifts are underway in the states, as well.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There have been so many surprises in Donald Trump’s first weeks in office that it’s tempting to view him as a unique figure. Head 600 miles due west from Washington, however, and you’ll find yourself in a place where Trump’s way of doing business looks downright familiar.

In Kentucky, the Republican playbook has been in operation for over a year already, ever since a little-known businessman with a private fortune, strong Tea Party loyalties, and a penchant for saying whatever comes to mind took up residence in the governor’s mansion. Like Trump, Matt Bevin was a surprising choice for chief executive. Kentucky has long been a Democratic holdout among Southern states; in the past four decades, it has elected just one other Republican governor—and voters kicked Ernie Fletcher out after just one term. But Bevin proves that Trump is hardly alone; the same populist discontent and shrewd manipulation that fueled Trump’s rise has propelled other unconventional politicians into office as well. And just as Trump works to remake American politics at the federal level, profound policy shifts are underway in the states, too.

Like Trump, Bevin possesses a soaring ego, a pugilistic personality, and an open disdain for prevailing political norms—and the press. He rants against his political enemies on Facebook. Last fall, he labeled a Democratic legislator “a habitual liar” for whom he has “no respect.” “Shame on you,” he told a local reporter who published a claim that Bevin had tried to intimidate another lawmaker into switching parties. “I categorically deny every bit of that drivel.” And to a veteran state judge who ruled he had overstepped his bounds in abolishing the entire board of trustees at the University of Louisville: “Oh my goodness. Really and truly, this judge has been a political hack his entire life.”

Like Trump, Bevin has also refused to release his tax returns. He has appointed wealthy businessmen and retired military officers to run Kentucky’s most important executive agencies. And he has acted unilaterally—abolishing public boards at a whim, slashing spending for state universities, and triggering adverse rulings from the courts—in ways that have left even former governors who wish him well astounded. “He’s certainly less concerned about traditional, cautionary things that traditional politicians would want to avoid,” Paul Patton, a Democrat who governed Kentucky from 1995 to 2003, says of Bevin.

“Even as short a time as ten years ago, someone like Bevin could not have been elected governor of Kentucky,” says Al Cross, a veteran political reporter in the state who is now director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “His personality is not the personality that has ever appealed to people in Kentucky politics.”

Within weeks of Bevin’s inauguration, some Democrats were calling for his impeachment, citing his tendency to push boundaries with the press, with his opponents, and in managing the state government. But few are talking that way anymore. In November, Republicans won complete control of the state legislature—making talk of impeachment far-fetched. And just as Trump has come out of the gate with a raft of policies that have thrown the political system into chaos, Bevin and his allies have laid the groundwork for a lasting transformation of Kentucky’s political and economic landscape.

When the state’s General Assembly met at the beginning of January, lawmakers sent seven bills to Bevin’s desk in a single day. One measure outlawed abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and mandated that women be shown ultrasound images and fetal heartbeat audio before they can have an abortion. Another bill struck down Kentucky’s minimum wage on public works projects. Yet another weakened labor unions by finally turning Kentucky—home to nearly 60,000 autoworkers, behind only Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana—into a right-to-work state, making it illegal to require workers to join unions, a shift long sought by Republicans and the business lobby. “We’ve done in five days more than typically gets done in any session,” Bevin crowed after the bill passed on January 7. Democrats were left despondent, as hundreds of union workers and their supporters protested at the state capitol. “Let’s just call it what it is,” said state Representative Will Coursey. “This week has been a massacre of the middle class.”

Former Governor John Y. Brown, Jr., a Democrat who married the former Miss America just months before taking office in 1979, is probably the earliest example of a playboy businessman turned governor. Like Trump and Bevin, he sailed into office on a self-funded campaign amid a bevy of promises to focus on jobs. He filled his cabinet with millionaires who agreed to serve for $1-a-year salaries, and he ran the state as a CEO with a marked preference for delegating the details. Still, his tenure was seen as largely successful, and his decision to open a trade office in Japan would a few years later result in what was then the biggest economic development deal in Kentucky history: Toyota’s opening of a Georgetown automotive plant. But unlike either of the Republicans in question, Brown never lost faith with his Democratic roots. “We pioneered ‘running government like a business’ and it worked,” he says. “But unlike Republicans, we were kind and gentle in our services and our campaign.”

That kind and gentle approach was certainly not part of Bevin’s campaigns. As with Trump, Republicans in Kentucky did not initially embrace Bevin, an investment manager transplanted from Connecticut, who entered Kentucky politics in 2013 with a doomed campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the godfather of Bluegrass politics. Bevin lost badly in the primary but still refused to endorse McConnell, leading many Republicans to denounce him as disloyal. When he decided at the last minute to run in the next year’s race for governor, the political establishment was dumbfounded. He campaigned hard against Obama, the Affordable Care Act, and mainstream Republicans—just as Trump would a year later—and won a crowded GOP primary by 83 votes. That fall, Attorney General Jack Conway, a weak if well-funded Democrat, overly cautious and blistered by a pro-gay rights stance, couldn’t decide whether to stand by Obama or run from him, and the mission-fired Bevin waltzed into office.

Ever the pragmatist, McConnell mended fences with Bevin just as he had previously with Senator Rand Paul, and together McConnell and Bevin set about turning the Kentucky House red. “McConnell knew, and Bevin knew, that there was an opportunity here that we had to take advantage of,” says Scott Jennings, a former Karl Rove disciple whose super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, spent millions of dollars helping Republicans win control of the state legislature last year. “If the Democrats had retained the House, Bevin would have had a miserable first term.”

Now, the governor and his allies are pushing through a laundry list of conservative priorities. Even Brown, the Democratic former governor, says he’s been impressed with Bevin’s energy, even when he has occasionally overstepped. “I hope we get good results,” Brown said. “But you know, I do like to see an aggressive governor.” The fireworks haven’t stopped since the General Assembly began its current session. The latest standoff has been between Mayor Greg Fisher of Louisville, a Democrat and progressive businessman-turned-politician eying a possible bid for a third term, and the Republicans in Frankfort. Kentucky’s largest city hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1965, and Republicans there have been chafing, especially since 2000, when citizens voted to merge the county and city governments and put nearly all local power in the hands of the mayor.

Republicans, sensing their moment, are hell-bent on changing that. Bills in the House and Senate would boost the power of the council and weaken the mayor. Minority council members—almost always Republicans—would gain staff and a lawyer of their own, and the council would be able to fire department heads, currently a prerogative reserved for the mayor. An early version of one bill would have given the governor the sole authority to appoint a replacement, should a mayor die or leave office unexpectedly. Fisher calls the efforts absurd, and “a war on Louisville.” He told The Courier-Journal, “It flies into the notion of any kind of local control where local people should elect the local official and have some say over who the mayor is—it’s really unprecedented.” Amid a flurry of amendments, just how big a slap at Louisville the final legislation will be is unclear. Most everyone expects the results to teeter on the question of whether Bevin, who is from Louisville, intervenes—and how.   

But however he decides the Louisville question, Bevin has much larger ambitions. Republicans in Frankfort plan to cut taxes for the wealthy, slash pensions for government employees, weaken environmental regulations, and gut the state’s Medicaid expansion. After a meeting at the White House this week, Bevin called the Affordable Care Act an “unmitigated disaster” in Kentucky, despite strong evidence to the contrary, even as he conceded that repealing and replacing the system so heartily embraced by his predecessor, Steve Beshear, has been more difficult than expected.

Similar echoes of Trump can be seen in other states around the country as well. In Texas, for example, the notion of an all-GOP leadership is hardly new. Republicans have held every statewide office in Texas, and controlled both houses of the legislature, since before George W. Bush’s time as governor. But the leaders now in office are far more conservative than in Bush’s time, or even under former Governor Rick Perry, who spent 14 years consolidating power as the state’s longest-serving governor and is now Trump’s Energy Secretary. Perry’s successor, Governor Greg Abbott, has declared war on cities and counties declaring themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants, pushed for increased abortion restrictions, and imposed a statewide hiring freeze, though in recent days he’s made allowance for some hiring. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, whose office is generally considered the most powerful in Texas, has pushed hard, despite opposition from the business lobby, to pass a bathroom bill modeled after North Carolina’s notorious 2016 statute.

Agendas like the ones in Kentucky, Texas, and other heavily red states are one reason why so many Republicans, even those who flinch at the bombast coming from politicians like Trump, Bevin, or Patrick, are smiling. In the end, the results speak for themselves. “I don’t know a single Republican in Kentucky who isn’t delighted that Matt Bevin is governor,” Jennings says. Already, plenty of Republicans in Washington, teeth gritted or not, are saying the same of Trump.