FRANKFORT — The conservative tea party movement that backed Matt Bevin when he was a struggling long-shot Republican wants Bevin to keep Jenean Hampton as his running mate when he seeks re-election as governor in 2019.
A dozen tea party leaders from across the state met with Bevin at the Capitol about a month ago, and the first item on their agenda was a unanimous request that Hampton remain on Bevin’s ticket.
“We said we’d really like to see him keep Jenean…” said Scott Hofstra, of Elizabethtown, spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party. “Jenean is very conservative. I think she’s been a bright spot for Matt’s administration.”
But Hofstra and two others at the meeting said Bevin told them he had not yet made a decision on a 2019 running mate. They also said he mentioned no names of others he may be considering for lieutenant governor.
“He said he’s still looking. He didn’t say 'no,' but he didn’t say 'yes,'” Hofstra said. “Whether or not our plea made a difference, I don’t know.”
Calls to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office were answered Tuesday by voicemail. Messages weren't returned. Likewise, Bevin’s Communications Director Elizabeth Kuhn did not respond to questions emailed to her on the issue Monday and Tuesday, nor did she return phone messages Tuesday.
Bevin announced at the end of the Republican Party of Kentucky’s Lincoln Dinner in Lexington in August that he would seek re-election — but after his speech he would not say whether he would keep Hampton as his running mate.
And neither the governor nor Hampton has publicly said much about it in the three months since. But the governor will need to make a decision soon. The deadline for filing a slate to appear on the ballot is Jan. 29, and the slate would have to file paperwork sooner if it wants to begin raising and spending money on its campaign before then.
Hofstra said that tea party leaders from across the state were concerned about losing one of their own from the ticket and had other issues they wanted to discuss with Bevin.
He said he requested the meeting, which lasted about two hours and included discussion of several other issues including the group’s opposition to raising the gas tax.
While Hofstra said he did not get a good read on where Bevin was heading on a lieutenant governor selection, Barbara Knott, a longtime tea party activist from Owensboro, was not encouraged by Bevin’s response.
“He was very evasive and said it hadn’t been decided…” Knott said. She said she came away thinking Bevin will replace Hampton because if he was going to retain her “he would have come out and said so.”
Knott said she and Hampton are good friends, and that Bevin’s decision is crucial to winning her vote.
“Look, Governor Bevin is a Republican. Jenean is a conservative tea party person. That’s who I support. If Jenean’s not on the ticket, I will not vote for him.”
Hofstra said he’s not certain how he would vote if Hampton is let go by Bevin.
“That would be a tough decision for me at the time. Obviously, I’d love to see her on the ticket. I’d have to have very, very strong evidence from him as to why he didn’t choose her,” Hofstra said.
Justin Poland, who is with the conservative group Warren County Patriots and attended the meeting, said, “It’s up to Bevin and Jenean. They’re still considering it, mulling it over. I have faith in Jenean and the governor that they’ll be able to come to an agreement that’s best for Kentucky moving forward for the conservative cause.”
Hampton has not played a major or highly visible role in the Bevin administration. Her office website lists initiatives that include a reading program and an entrepreneurship competition for high schools and says she's visited 155 schools. It also touts her advocacy for military and veterans issues, emergency preparedness and Kentucky’s aerospace industry.
Hampton's tea party supporters point to her personal story — growing up in poverty in Detroit, before going on to earn a master’s degree, serve seven years in the U.S. Air Force, and become the first African-American in Kentucky history to hold statewide elective office.
And they praise her work as lieutenant governor, particularly with school children.
“She’s been involved in different education programs — outreach for students, especially girls and minorities that have not had an opportunity to be involved in leadership programs and programs involving science…” Poland said. “We also support her because she a true conservative — someone that’s good to have in the room to ensure that conservative voices are heard.”
Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky associate professor of political science, said candidates for governor often have different political priorities when seeking re-election.
"Usually, for the first time they run, they have a primary election," Voss said, and all decisions are made with the immediate goal of winning that primary. An incumbent often does not face a primary challenge and focuses on how best to win the general election.
But, for now, no formidable opponent has surfaced to challenge Bevin in a primary.
Recent history shows it is not unusual for an incumbent governor to have a different running mate the second time around. In fact, Bevin's two predecessors — Democrat Steve Beshear and Republican Ernie Fletcher — ran with a different running mate when they sought re-election.
Two Democrats have already announced they will run for governor next year. Attorney General Andy Beshear is running with Jacqueline Coleman, assistant principal at Nelson County High School as his lieutenant governor candidate. And House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins is running with Jefferson County school board member Stephanie Horne.
Other Democrats are likely to enter the race.