LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear traded shots in a rancorous debate Tuesday night that turned personal when the incumbent brought up his challenger's children to claim his opponent is a "fraud" in promoting public education.
Beshear responded that he supports his children and told Bevin that he would "never attack yours." It was one of several testy exchanges between the rivals, who are locked in a tight gubernatorial race. It reflected their mutual animosity, built over their terms in office when Beshear filed a series of lawsuits challenging some of Bevin's executive actions.
The high-stakes debate came three weeks before their Nov. 5 election showdown.
The candidates wrangled over health care, abortion, pensions and support for coal miners, but the hourlong debate turned personal during a question about education.
Beshear touted his proposed a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for Kentucky's public school teachers and vowed to submit "an education-first budget" to lawmakers.
He has made public education a centerpiece of his campaign, pointing to Bevin's feud with teachers who opposed his efforts to revamp underfunded public pension systems.
In response, Bevin fired back at Beshear: "You love public education so much that your kids go to private school, is that right?" Beshear responded: "You're attacking my kids now?"
"No, I'm not," Bevin replied. "I'm just saying you're a fraud."
Bevin said public education needs to be funded but ridiculed his opponent's teacher pay raise proposal, calling it "Andy Candy." During the campaign, Bevin has accused his opponent of failing to lay out how he'd pay for a teacher pay raise and other proposals.
Afterward, Beshear told reporters that Bevin's performance was "unhinged and erratic" and "showed that he is not fit to be the governor."
"I'm not surprised that this governor attacked my kids tonight because he's been attacking all of the commonwealth's children through his policies these last four years," Beshear said.
Bevin said his comments were not meant as an attack on his opponent's children.
"I did not bring up his children, I brought up a decision he and his wife made on behalf of their children," the governor told reporters. "The children did not make the decision to go to private school."
Bevin also took aim at Beshear's family during another exchange about support for higher education. Beshear pointed out that his father, Steve Beshear, was a "poor preacher's kid" who was able to attend the University of Kentucky and went on to become a two-term Kentucky governor.
"If you have to brag about how poor your father and grandfather were, that's a bit of a stretch," Bevin replied.
On the health care front, the candidates sparred over Bevin's efforts to require some "able-bodied" Medicaid recipients to get a job, go to school or volunteer to keep their benefits.
The governor defended his effort, saying his objective is to ensure that the medically frail and disabled "do not lose out" on coverage.
A federal judge blocked the work requirements and Bevin's administration is appealing. Medicaid is a joint federal-state health care program for the poor and disabled.
Beshear responded that Bevin's proposal would result in at least 95,000 people losing coverage. The challenger said that if elected, he'll rescind Bevin's Medicaid proposal.
Beshear's father used an executive order to expand Medicaid coverage while he was governor. His order increased Medicaid rolls by more than 400,000 people, many getting coverage for the first time. The federal Affordable Care Act gave states the option of expanding Medicaid coverage.
Bevin has said the Medicaid expansion was too expensive.
The rivals also wrangled over abortion, a hot-button social issue that Bevin has stressed throughout the campaign.
Bevin said he's "unapologetically" opposed to abortion, adding: "It is the responsibility of government to defend the defenseless and that includes the unborn."
Beshear reiterated his support for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that decades ago legalized abortion nationwide. He added that he supports "reasonable restrictions, especially on late-term procedures."
The two sparred over a group of eastern Kentucky miners who were denied pay when their company recently went bankrupt. The Harlan County miners attracted national attention by blocking a coal shipment in protest of clawed-back paychecks from Blackjewel mining company.
Beshear accused Bevin's administration of not enforcing a state law that requires a bond payment from some coal operators.
Bevin said that state law doesn't spell out how to enforce the bond payments.
"I think it's important we close these loopholes," Bevin said. "It should not have happened the way it did."
Beshear said the law, passed during his father's administration, has no loophole, but instead gives the enforcement duties to the Labor Cabinet.
"And what does that mean? You're supposed to go out and do it," he said.