Months before voters decide whether to give him a second term, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has picked an increasingly public fight with an unusual foe: His own lieutenant governor.
Bevin has built his political career on fights with other politicians. He entered politics in 2014 by launching a scorched-earth conservative challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R).
In office, he has clashed with Republicans in the state legislature, with teachers unions, and with Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), his opponent in November’s general election.
But in recent weeks, Kentucky political circles are buzzing about Bevin’s feud with Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton (R), whom Bevin picked as his running mate four years ago.
Bevin announced in January that he would dump Hampton from the ticket as he runs for reelection, in favor of state Sen. Ralph Alvarado (R).
Days later, Bevin fired Hampton’s chief of staff, Steve Knipper, after Knipper entered the race for secretary of State, a violation of the Bevin administration’s policy against political appointees running for partisan office.
And in late May, Bevin’s office fired Adrienne Southworth, Hampton’s deputy chief of staff, who has since said she was investigating whether Bevin had the authority to fire Knipper in the first place.
Hampton, the first African American elected to a statewide office in Kentucky, was left with only one staffer, and virtually no power to influence the administration or state government.
“Yesterday, person(s) unknown initiated unauthorized personnel action ending employment of my talented, stellar Deputy Chief Adrienne Southworth, against my wishes,” Hampton wrote on Twitter. “Pray for me as I battle dark forces.”
Bevin has professed ignorance of the specifics of the personnel dispute. He has blamed the media for focusing on the story, which he said is part of the normal churn of political appointees working at the governor’s pleasure.
“I really don’t know what it’s in reference to,” Bevin told reporters of Southworth’s dismissal. “People aren’t let go indiscriminately. There’s always reasons.”
In a statement, Bevin’s chief of staff Blake Brickman took responsibility for Southworth’s ouster. He said Southworth had advocated for commuting the sentence of a convicted sex offender and for unspecified misuse of state property.
“I am perplexed by the vacuous decision to deprive an active, productive Lieutenant Governor of her staff,” Hampton wrote in another statement released Tuesday. “But after watching politics for over 45 years, I am not surprised by the false allegations and character attacks which have ensued.”
Bevin’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Hampton’s office declined to make the lieutenant governor available for an interview.
Hampton said Southworth would continue to work for her, tracking her hours so she can receive back pay once she is put back on the state payroll.
Kentucky’s lieutenant governor is one of the least powerful in the country. Under the Commonwealth’s 1992 constitution, the office has only ceremonial powers, in addition to whatever powers the governor chooses to delegate.
“The only power it has is whatever the governor chooses to give it, and Matt Bevin chose to give Jenean Hampton no power,” said Al Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. “Matt Bevin realized early on that Jenean Hampton was not a big asset to his administration.”
Bevin is not the first governor to change running mates; his predecessor, Steve Beshear (D), picked a new running mate when his lieutenant governor ran for a U.S. Senate seat.
But the increasingly public feud with his own lieutenant governor is unprecedented, and it threatens to undermine Bevin’s bid for a second term.
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Tea Party activists who promoted Hampton have threatened political retribution, and Bevin’s standing within the Republican Party is already shaky; he took just 52 percent of the vote in the primary this year, a shockingly low number for an incumbent.
“There are a whole lot of Tea Party people who got out and worked for Matt Bevin’s campaigns in 2014 and 2015 who will not do that this year. And some are telling me that, while they won’t vote for Andy Beshear, they won’t vote for Matt Bevin either,” Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, told the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this month.
While Kentucky is a deeply conservative state where President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE took 62 percent of the vote in 2016, it is not a deeply Republican state — Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 240,000 registered voters.
The only public survey in recent months, conducted by Gravis Marketing, showed Bevin leading Beshear by a 48 percent to 42 percent margin. Republican strategists familiar with the state of the race warn of private polls that show Beshear ahead.
The feud with Hampton is “of no consequence governmentally, but it might be of consequence politically,” Cross said. “Tea Party people who knew and liked her would have come around eventually. But now the thing has been exploded.”