FRANKFORT -- Gov. Matt Bevin predicted Tuesday that his political kinship with Republican President Donald Trump will be in the campaign spotlight this year, and that Trump may visit Kentucky multiple times to help Bevin counter a tough Democratic challenge.
During radio interviews with WKDZ and WMDJ, Bevin said Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have signaled their intention to appear with him to support his reelection.
The GOP governor is being challenged by his nemesis, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, in one of the country's most hotly contested elections in 2019. A Bevin defeat would send shock waves through Republican circles nationally heading into 2020.
"The president and vice president will be coming to Kentucky at least once, twice, three times each in the months ahead," Bevin told WMDJ. "How many times is really going to be dependent on things that are beyond everyone's control. But both are committed to coming."
Trump carried Kentucky by a landslide in 2016 and remains popular in the bluegrass state. Bevin and Pence both promote socially conservative beliefs. Their friendship stretches back to Pence's time as governor in neighboring Indiana.
Beshear's campaign manager, Eric Hyers, downplayed the potential Trump factor, saying: "This race isn't about what's going on in Washington, D.C."
"Matt Bevin is a weak governor who is trying to hide behind the president because he can't run on his failed record of attacking teachers and trying to gut health care for people with pre-existing conditions," Hyers said in a statement.
Bevin touted support from Trump and Pence as his administration faces a growing rift with Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton over the dismissal of her two top aides.
Hampton sent a tweet several weeks ago asking for prayers in her fight against "dark forces" as she denounced the firing of her deputy chief of staff by Bevin's administration. Hampton has strong support among tea party activists.
The feud with Hampton erupted as Bevin has tried to galvanize conservative support after he drew barely more than half the votes in the May Republican primary.
Trump recorded an election-eve phone message to GOP voters for Bevin and then tweeted support for him, but Bevin still struggled. He received 52% of the GOP primary vote, while state Rep. Robert Goforth got 39%. The rest went to two other candidates.
GOP strategist Scott Jennings said Tuesday that Trump can help.
"Trump will help remind Republicans what's at stake and can help frame the race in a way that makes some hesitant GOP voters come home to their nominee," Jennings said in an email.
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle said Bevin is seeking "a lifeline" in hopes that Trump and Pence can help pull him to reelection.
"It just shows how much he's struggling, that he's asking people from Washington to save him," Riddle said in a phone interview.
Bevin's campaign hasn't said where Trump and Pence might visit or when.
Jennings said Bevin "needs help the most" in eastern and south-central Kentucky -- areas where Goforth carried many counties.
Bevin has made joint appearances with Pence and several other Trump administration officials this year. Bevin has played up his ties to Trump along with his opposition to abortion and Kentucky's job growth during his tenure. The two businessmen are similarly unconventional conservative politicians. Both favor social media over traditional media and attack critics fiercely.
Trump's influence was felt in Kentucky last year, when the president traveled to the state to make a pitch for Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, who later narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Amy McGrath in one of the country's most-watched House races.
Riddle said there are contrasts to Barr's race and the gubernatorial campaign. He said Barr "hasn't been terribly controversial," while Bevin has at times instigated controversy.
Bevin has criticized teachers who used sick days to rally at Kentucky's Capitol, forcing some school districts to close. In 2018, he asserted without evidence that a child who had been left home alone was sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as Kentucky teachers rallied. He apologized but then doubled down two months ago, connecting a young girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by more teacher protests.