A red Volkswagen honked for Andy Beshear; a black Lexus honked for Matt Bevin.
An hour or so before the two candidates for governor took a televised-debate stage for the second time, supporters of both lined Avenue of Champions outside the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts.
WKYT-TV news anchor Bill Bryant, who co-moderated the debate, said the scene outside had “political electricity.” Inside, both sides often interrupted the debate with applause, cheers and occasional boos, despite exhortations to the contrary by Bryant and co-moderator Shannon Cogan of Louisville’s WAVE-TV.
Beforehand, at the corner of Rose Street, Bevin’s supporters held signs that said “Matt Bevin for Governor” and “Matt Bevin is just getting started.” Children holding Bevin signs shouted, “Beep for Bevin!” and counted the honks they got.
“Beep for Bevin, go to heaven!” one child yelled.
Not far down the street, and in a few cases overlapping with the Bevin supporters, Beshear supporters sported large blue signs and repeated chants like “Hey hey; ho ho; Matt Bevin has got to go.”
Beshear’s supporters on the street seemed to outnumber Bevin’s, and they were certainly louder — though the megaphone used by a Beshear campaign member helped their voices carry as they shouted “Vote Beshear on Nov. 5.” Inside, the crowd seemed about evenly divided; free tickets had been issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
Both outdoor events were partly planned and partly organic.
Bevin supporter Erika Calihan, of Lexington, had created a Facebook event inviting Bevin supporters to arrive early to show their support.
Some people had responded on Facebook, Calihan said, but far more people were there on the corner.
“Word of mouth kind of took over,” she said.
Beshear’s campaign brought some signs, said a Kentucky Democratic Party spokesperson, but beyond that, “it came together pretty organically.”
Joan Bishop, a retired Boone County teacher who came from Louisville for the debate, said she wasn’t aware that this show of support was happening until she arrived. She answered the campaign’s call for teachers to come wearing red.
“We just jumped in,” she said, with “Beshear-Coleman” logo earrings dangling from her ears.
The crowd couldn’t bring their signs into the debate hall, but they brought their energy and voices.
President Michael Hamilton of the UK Student Government Association, which was a co-sponsor of the debate, began the evening with guidelines to the crowd: no interruptive applause, no yelling, no noisemakers.
If anyone in the crowd didn’t comply, he said, “our friends at UKPD” would escort them out.
No one was escorted out, but the crowd of about 900 was anything but silent.
The first illicit applause came during the candidates’ back-and-forth answers during the very first question, about funding pensions. Bevin took a shot at Beshear, saying Beshear’s “gross incompetence for understanding the legislative system is concerning for someone who wants to be governor.”
The first pro-Beshear applause came during a discussion of higher-education funding. “We showed this governor we would not be bullied, not by him, not by anybody else,” Beshear said, and pro-Beshear attendees cheered, then booed Bevin seconds later.
Despite Bryant and Cogan’s repeated requests, the vocal reactions continued throughout the debate. They noted that the cheering cut into time for questions and answers, cheering continued but some chose different tactics.
Sounds of people saying “shh” began to cut into cheering, and some red-clad people in the back, presumably teachers, began using a sort of spirit fingers to show their support instead.
Perhaps the crowd was following the lead of their chosen candidates, who also broke some debate rules. Both candidates sometimes surpassed their one-minute speaking limit and at times spoke over each other.
At the halfway mark, Bryant addressed any viewers around the state who were just tuning in: “It is lively tonight,” and Cogan chimed in with, “Very lively indeed.” The crowd laughed, a good moment of relief to break the tension of the evening.
When the debate ended, nearly every person in the audience stood, giving both candidates a standing ovation. Chants of “Go Andy Go” broke out; after the applause died down, Bevin greeted people in the first few rows, which seemed to be packed with his supporters.
SGA Vice President Kat Speece said that while it can be frustrating for the rules not to be followed, she is encouraged by the audience’s enthusiasm because she thinks it might predict a good turnout in November.
“It definitely shows that Kentucky is very spirited about this election,” Speece said. “It still shows that there is a lot of room for civic engagement in Kentucky, which is very promising.”
Bailey Vandiver, a University of Kentucky journalism major, is covering the 2019 gubernatorial race for The State Journal.