Is Bevin vs. Hampton a really big deal or basically just a personal feud? The fallout from the firing of Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton’s deputy chief of staff by Gov. Matt Bevin’s chief of staff continued this week, but the dispute won’t likely meaningfully change policy decisions or electoral outcomes in Kentucky.
The fight, which has now gone on for nearly three weeks, includes a bit of a mystery about exactly why Adrienne Southworth, Hampton’s deputy, was dismissed, allegations and counter-allegations from the Bevin and Hampton sides, potential connections to some of the biggest names in Kentucky politics (Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, Bevin and Hampton) and perhaps most memorably, Hampton’s cryptic May 31 tweet referring to “dark forces” working against her.
Here’s a look at the fallout from two angles:
- Policy It’s not clear that Hampton or her staff have played a particularly significant role in the Bevin’s administration’s policies over the last three-and-a-half years. Hampton, before becoming lieutenant governor, was closely associated with Tea Party activists in Kentucky and an influential figure in the state’s conservative circles. But there’s little evidence that she is a particularly important figure in Bevin’s strongly conservative policies as governor, such as his attempts to limit abortion in the state. Bevin is himself very conservative, as are many of the Republicans in the General Assembly.
It’s unlikely the drama over Hampton and her aides will have much effect on say, the pension negotiations between the General Assembly and the governor, because Hampton doesn’t seem to have much of a role in policies like that in the first place.
- Electoral Politics Could this dust-up hurt Bevin’s electoral prospects? It’s hard to see that. Hampton and her allies may strongly object to the way that she has been treated by Bevin and his aides. So they could stay home in November, vote for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andy Beshear or support Libertarian candidate John Hicks. But going any of those routes is likely to boost Beshear’s chances of becoming governor. And Tea Party conservatives are the most conservative Republicans — so they disagree with Beshear on a wide range of issues and will be very wary of helping him get elected.
When we actually get to November, how many deeply conservative Kentucky Republicans are really going to stay home or vote against Bevin, with the potential of putting a Democrat in the governor’s office? That number is likely to be very small.
One thing to watch for over the next few months is whether Hampton, Southworth or any other prominent Tea Party Republicans in Kentucky pledge not to vote for Bevin in November or join the newly formed group “Republicans for Andy Beshear and Jacqueline Coleman. This too seems unlikely.
Bevin does have a political problem with fellow Republicans — but it’s with more moderate people in the party, not conservatives. State Representative Robert Goforth won 39 percent of the vote in last month’s GOP gubernatorial primary by running to Bevin’s left, criticizing the governor for his harsh rhetoric toward teachers in particular. The people who voted for Goforth are probably more likely to consider backing Beshear than deeply conservative Republicans in Hampton’s mold.
Does the Hampton feud hurt Bevin with Democratic and independent voters, by showing internal division in his administration? Maybe. But it’s likely voters care more that Bevin criticizes rank and file teachers than how he treats fellow politicians and political staff. In short, Bevin was already electorally vulnerable — and it’s not clear this dispute with Hampton changes that too much.
But this story is perhaps more than just a personality feud because of a third factor: governing norms.
President Trump has not dismissed top aides to Mike Pence, nor did Barack Obama do that to Joe Biden. Kentucky governors have also generally not removed the top aides to the lieutenant governor, as happened with both Steve Knipper (Hampton’s chief of staff until he was fired by the Bevin administration in January) and Southworth. Steve Beshear, Obama and Trump probably could have forced those removals if they wanted, but did not take that step.
The lieutenant governor is officially a constitutional officer in Kentucky’s government and would be Bevin’s successor if he were for some reason unable to serve. By dismissing Hampton’s staff without really consulting her, Bevin and his team are basically publicly announcing that Hampton is powerless. The unusually harsh treatment of Hampton fits with the broader governing pattern of Bevin, who has attacked the news media, judges and members of his own party in the state legislature in a way governors traditionally don’t.
That said, it’s not clear how significant of a break with traditional governing norms we are watching in this Hampton dispute. Maybe further investigation will show that Bevin or his aides violated employment regulations or other laws in these firings — and that would be significant.
Otherwise, we have Bevin defanging a lieutenant governor that we already knew he didn’t care for: He opted to replace her on the ticket for his re-election race. Bevin’s administration is essentially dismissing some political staffers in their office who have fallen out of favor.
In short, this whole situation probably hasn’t helped Bevin’s electoral prospects or his ability to govern. But it probably hasn’t hurt them either. And one big piece of evidence that the governor thinks this controversy will eventually blow over is that there is no sign that Southworth is getting her job back.
Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer who is based in Louisville.