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Republican Matt Bevin wants to redefine governor’s race on marriage equality

Republican Matt Bevin wants to redefine governor’s race on marriage equality
Matt Bevin
Matt Bevin AP Photo

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The person most talked about during Kentucky’s first televised gubernatorial debate wasn’t even in the building.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples landed her in jail and ignited passions across the country, basically hit the reset button on the high-stakes race.

During an hour-long debate at Bellarmine University that was broadcast live in the state’s two biggest media markets, the candidates faced a question about whether Davis’ decision could hurt the state’s business recruitment efforts. Democrat Jack Conway answered a question from Republican rival Matt Bevin on why he did not defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban last year. And a viewer from Davis’ county asked why she had not been charged with official misconduct.

“My intention has always been to execute this race on financial issues, on economic issues,” Bevin told reporters after the debate, which was sponsored by The Bluegrass Poll partners. “In the last several weeks, 85 percent of what people talk about are these social issues. … I think the issue has redefined this race whether any of us candidates want that to be the case or not.”

Conway, the two-term Democratic attorney general, tried to focus on economic issues, questioning Bevin’s handling of his personal and corporate taxes and his lack of support for public-private partnerships that Conway says will be crucial to creating job opportunities for Kentuckians in the next decade. But he spent a lot of time defending his decision to not appeal a federal judge’s decision to overturn Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban last year and his criticism of Davis for refusing to obey a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses.

“The state’s highest court has said my duty is to tell the state when things are unconstitutional. That’s what I did. I did that to save us money,” Conway told Bevin during one of the debate’s more heated exchanges. “And that is very different, Mr. Bevin, that is very different than ignoring a federal judge’s court order. We are a nation of laws.”

Kentucky is one of the few states that elects governors in odd-numbered years, making it the only heavily contested political race in the country and a precursor to the 2016 presidential election. Until now, the race has mostly focused on health care — specifically Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s decision to expand the state’s Medicaid eligibility under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act. The expansion has brought health insurance to more than 400,000 people, many for the first time. But it costs taxpayers more money to pay for all of those people, and Republicans have questioned whether the state can afford it given Kentucky’s skyrocketing public pension debt.

Medicaid is a complex issue, making it difficult for the candidates to build their campaigns around it. But Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples ignited the passions of religious conservatives in an already conservative state and gave them a cause to rally around.

University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss said a race focusing on social and cultural issues will be “bad for Conway.”

“He needs to get people thinking about their pocketbooks to improve odds about a Democratic victory,” Voss said.

Conway tried to do that on Tuesday, focusing his attacks on Bevin for his past statements questioning the effectiveness of early childhood education and for refusing to release his personal tax returns.

“Mr. Bevin is fond of going around saying, ‘Who do you trust?’ I don’t think you trust someone who has had his own problem with tax issues and won’t release his tax returns,” Conway said.

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