Jones and Jennings show how partisan politics can be fair, entertaining

One pleasure of writing about politics is writing about politicians as people. You come to know them as human beings, not just by policy positions or their strategies. That has become more difficult in an increasingly polarized time – first between the parties, and now between the news media and politicians (mainly of one party, but not entirely).

That’s one reason it was a treat to watch a public conversation this month between Democrat Matt Jones and Republican Scott Jennings at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s Business Summit and Annual Meeting in Louisville. They made their partisan points but were straightforward about Kentucky politics, and, important for such an hour-long session, entertaining.

Jennings and Jones are Kentucky’s leading red and blue commentators in a growing part of the public sphere created by technology and our times: analysts who also advocate, and even get mentioned as possible candidates.

Jennings, a regular on CNN and other channels when he’s not running his Louisville-based RunSwitch public-relations firm, worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and was deputy political director for President George W. Bush, reporting to Karl Rove.

Jones gave up practicing law to create the hugely popular Kentucky Sports Radio and has a half-hour daily TV show in Lexington. He’s not a journalist in the traditional sense, but in his travels and talks around the state he is, in effect, a sports and political reporter – gathering, analyzing and delivering information – but he is also outspoken about his own politics, and is publicly toying with the idea of challenging McConnell in 2020.

So what did they have to say to the Chamber crowd?

They disagreed most about Gov. Matt Bevin, who continues to play coy about seeking re-election.

Jennings said he expects Bevin to run, and to win, because it would be “exceedingly difficult to turn out an incumbent Republican governor in a red state with unemployment as low as it’s ever been.” (He added some overheated GOP talking points, which were largely uncharacteristic of his presentation, so let’s move on.)

Jones agreed it would be “extremely difficult” to see Bevin losing, “but if there is a governor who could find a way to do it, Matt Bevin is that governor. I think he has blown this year about as much as a person could do.” He said Bevin’s remark about teachers during the battle over pensions “has made him unbelievably unpopular.” (A Morning Consult poll, taken April through June, found him to be the nation’s fourth most unpopular governor, at 29.4 percent approval and 56.5 percent disapproval.)

Jones said most of his listeners support President Trump, so he has learned “what can I say as a Democrat that won’t make my mostly Republican audience hate me. There are a couple of people you can criticize with virtually no payback, and he has become one of those people [McConnell is the other]. He did not understand what teachers mean in rural communities. … Democrats are hoping Matt Bevin runs.”

Jones is from Middlesboro and has taken his show recently to small towns like Edmonton and Benton. In listing potential Republican candidates should Bevin not run, he included by implication Jennings, who interjected, “Don’t you think Dawson Springs has produced enough governors already?” and shook his head. He shares that hometown with Democrat Steve Beshear.

Jennings’ best jibe was at the former governor’s son, Attorney General Andy Beshear, and his announcement that he’s running for governor. “I kept expecting him to say, ‘That’s why we need longer recess and better vending machines in the school cafeteria.’ I mean, it just sounded less like a governor and more like a guy who was running for president of student council.”

Jones said Beshear must improve his public speaking, and “I do get a sense in the state that … they don’t want to see Beshear versus Bevin.”

The two discussed a lot more, such as McConnell, Trump and races for the state House and the 6th congressional district seat, and you can watch it at https://bit.ly/2vxSAdT. It was much less contentious than most of the talkfests you see on national cable channels, and more enlightening. Let’s have an encore.

Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.