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Bill Straub: Kentucky politics with all its ins and outs comes down to two issues — abortion and guns

Once you work your way through the briars, brambles, and bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go in Kentucky politics, you’ll discover that elections often come down to just two issues – abortion and guns.

Taxes are always on everyone’s mind but few, if any, have ever run a successful statewide campaign promising to raise levies, regardless of the obvious need. The economy often plays a part but Commonwealth voters have become so inured to promises of better days ahead, which never arrive, that they quit paying a whole lot of attention to vows of a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.

God in the public square is always a good sell but the next atheist to seek high office in the Bluegrass will be the first. It used to be that candidates had to pledge fealty to the death penalty – it’s hard to forget that Brereton Jones in his 1991 run for governor opposed capital punishment until, magically, a little girl in Western Kentucky told him he should be for it. Not only did he become a convert he suggested an expansion to include drug kingpins. He won, of course, in a move cynical even considering the Commonwealth’s high standards.

But abortion and guns are perennials. So it’s no surprise they both came up last week.

Matt Bevin and Andy Beshear

Kentucky Gov. St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire, the nation’s most unpopular governor by a substantial margin according to the polls, fighting for his political life in this election year, played the abortion card last week against his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear, and it appears he intends to ride that bad boy right up to Nov. 5.

In this instance, Mad Matt attacked Beshear, who is pro-choice, for accepting donations from an abortion clinic operator from Louisville and then, for good measure, blasted him for refusing to defend the state in lawsuits challenging several obviously unconstitutional abortion laws adopted by the legislature earlier this year.

“This is blood money, straight up,” St. Matt ranted. “There’s no other term for it. … They (clinic officials) are using monies that they have earned from killing Kentuckians to fund a guy whose job it is to defend the laws of this state but refuses to do so. That is unacceptable.”

It’s an interesting blitzkrieg – and I use that term purposefully — from several perspectives. For one thing, by asserting that clinic officials are “killing Kentuckians” – presumably the aborted fetuses – he is essentially accusing the thousands of women who undergo the procedure within the Commonwealth every year of murder. More than 3,000 abortions occurred in the state in both 2014 and 2015 – the last years statistics are available – and presumably very few of them will line up as Bevin supporters.

But the public in socially conservative Kentucky appears to be on the governor’s side. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2014, only 36 percent of those quizzed in the state said abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 57 percent said the procedure should be “illegal in all or most cases.” Meanwhile, a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, also 2014, found that 60 percent of white women – the Commonwealth’s largest voting bloc – maintained that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Mad Matt’s tirade arrived at, well, a very convenient moment. Around that same time, it was discovered that the state government he is charged with operating failed to collect a bond, as required by law, from Blackjewel LLC, a coal mining outfit that declared bankruptcy. The intent of the bond was to make sure that miners got paid for their hard work in the event the company went under. As it turned out several hundred miners received cold checks during the firm’s final pay periods and, since the bond was not collected, there were no funds to make them whole.

It certainly was just a coincidence that Bevin raised the abortion issue at the same time as the bond scandal broke. There certainly was no reason for the governor to divert attention from his administration’s failures.

Not a bit.

Abortion doesn’t always appear to be sitting in the front seat of Kentucky politics but it is always lurking and decisive. Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans statewide, constituting 49.9 percent of the electorate to 41 percent for the GOP. Yet the governor is a Republican, both the state House and Senate are controlled by the GOP, five of the six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are controlled by the party, both U.S. senators are Republican and President Extremely Stable Genius won 62.5 percent of the state’s vote in 2016 There are a lot of reasons for that but certainly thousands of Democrats are crossing party lines to cast anti-abortion votes.

Then there’s the guns.

At first glance, you might think our boy. Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell, aka Moscow Mitch, of Louisville, might have stepped in it. A lone gunman killed 22 people and injured 26 others during a rampage in El Paso, TX, on Aug. 3. That was quickly followed by a shooting spree in Dayton, OH, resulting in 10 dead and 27 wounded.

The bloodbaths quickly instigated new calls for stricter gun laws. Substantial fury was directed at Moscow Mitch, forever in the pocket of the National Rifle Association – he has consistently received “A” ratings over the years from the radical gun-rights group and collected more than $1.2 million in campaign contributions from the outfit throughout his career – for sitting on perfectly reasonable gun control measures.

Two bills in particular, one that would prohibit person-to-person gun sales in the absence of a background check and a second that would extend the time federal authorities have to complete background checks, have gone nowhere as a result of Moscow Mitch’s efforts, earning him yet another sobriquet – Massacre Mitch.

It appears McConnell is content to once again do nothing, other than to offer thoughts and prayers, of course. Back in 2017, after a sniper killed 59 people in Las Vegas, he did nothing to promote gun control legislation. And he opposed action in 2012, while serving as minority leader, after 26 individuals – 20 of them essentially babies – were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Massacre Mitch is running for re-election in 2020 – seeking a historic seventh term – and, sadly, his recalcitrance on the gun issue may serve him well. In other words, McConnell is placing a bet that voters in Kentucky approve of the status quo. And he’s probably right.

It’s noted that Kentucky was founded basically on the Three Gs – God, guns, and guts. It is a state that, after all, has a very famous firearm named after it – the Kentucky Long Rifle, one of which used by Daniel Boone, who named it tick-licker.

Kentucky adores guns and anyone who seeks to place even the slightest restrictions on purchase or possession is falling in a ring of fire. Last year a personal finance site, WalletHub.com, conducted a study that concluded that the commonwealth sat in the nation’s top spot in what it characterized as gun prevalence, taking into account gun ownership, per capita sales, gun ads and Google searches for guns.

In other words, opposing even the lamest new gun regulation is a political calculation for Massacre Mitch, as is everything he has touched in his Senate tenure, the good of the public be damned.

And while a Morning Consult poll released last month shows that McConnell is the least popular senator in the nation — 50 percent disapprove of his efforts – smart money is on his re-election.

He has a twofer – he opposes gun control laws and is rapidly confirming federal judges who he and others hope will overturn court decisions that have made abortion a constitutional right.

As Cassius noted in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
 But in ourselves…’’

NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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