LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence campaigned Friday for Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, making one of the Trump administration's first forays into a trio of 2019 Southern governor's races that could serve as a harbinger of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Voters in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi — states all won by Donald Trump in 2016 — will elect governors this year, offering Democrats a chance to test their message in the heart of Trump country ahead of the 2020 campaign.
In Louisiana, a Democrat is running for a second term while Mississippi's race is open because of term limits, making Kentucky's Bevin the only Republican incumbent governor in the three states on the ballot in 2019.
"I bring the full and total endorsement of the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald Trump," Pence said before a carefully assembled crowd of supporters at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky.
Bevin's approval numbers have dropped since he took office in 2015, particularly after he criticized public workers for opposing his efforts to overhaul the state's struggling pension system. Four Democrats are fighting to challenge him, including Attorney General Andy Beshear, state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and former state Auditor Adam Edelen.
Bevin and his new running mate, state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, told the crowd Friday they did not run for office to be popular.
"We didn't do this for fun," Bevin said, adding that "we will fight for the principles that matter," which he said include "Judeo-Christian values."
Friday was one of Bevin's first campaign events in the 2019 election cycle, and he used it to take credit for the state's improved ranking for tax competitiveness, according to the Tax Foundation. Pence noted that "under (Bevin's) leadership, per-pupil funding has reached the highest level in the history of the state of Kentucky."
But Bevin and Pence did not mention that Bevin vetoed the Republican-backed 2018 legislation that made both of those things possible. And while the dollar amount Kentucky has spent per pupil in public education is at an all-time high, when adjusted for inflation it is 13 percent less than the state spent in 2008, according to a report by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.
Pence also touted Trump's 2020 re-election campaign, reiterating the president's commitment to building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. After federal lawmakers did not give Trump enough money to build the wall, he declared a national emergency, which he says gives him permission to spend federal funds without direct authorization from Congress.
Pence thanked U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for endorsing Trump's emergency declaration, but chided Kentucky's junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul for opposing it.
"We call on Sen. Rand Paul and every member of the United States Congress to stand with this president, stand for border security," Pence said. "A vote against the president's emergency declaration is a vote against border security."
Paul, in an emailed statement, said he supports Trump and considers him a friend.
"My opposition to the National Emergency is not about President Trump. When President Obama went around Congress and said he had a pen and a phone and he wasn't afraid to use it — I did everything I could to stop him," Paul said. "Congress needs to fund border security, but no President should go around Congress. The Constitution is very clear that Congress controls spending."
Bevin mostly self-funded his surprising 2015 campaign, spending more than $4 million of his own money to win a statewide race one year after losing to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in a GOP Senate primary where the now Senate majority leader had labeled him a "pathological liar."
Fundraising should be a little easier for Bevin now that he's been in office nearly four years. Pence was also scheduled to attend a Friday fundraiser for Bevin. Tickets were $1,000, and they were $2,000 to be listed as a sponsor, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by The Associated Press.