Ky. governor’s race tests Democrat’s ability to survive in Trump country

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Andy Beshear took many opportunities to separate himself from a Democratic Party increasingly unpopular in Kentucky.

“A good job isn’t Democrat or Republican,” the governor, seeking a second term he said would deliver teacher raises and high-speed internet, told a crowd at Scout & Scholar Brewing.

“This race isn’t about any race for the White House,” he told reporters, as his GOP opponent relentlessly tied Beshear to President Biden and touted his own support from Donald Trump.

Asked what lessons his race held for Democrats in red and purple states, Beshear deflected with a message for both parties to “care about everyone.”

The Kentucky governor’s race, which culminates Tuesday, is testing a Democratic incumbent’s ability to buck political trends in a state that backed Trump over Biden by 26 percentage points. If anyone can do it, political veterans say, it’s Beshear — the son of another Kentucky governor who’s banking on a strong personal brand and a laser-focus on state and local economic issues. He has a high approval rating and a big cash advantage and, with attention-grabbing commercials, has also tapped into voter backlash to strict abortion bans, which snapped into place post-Roe v. Wade and handed Democrats a potent issue even in deep-red America.

The election will pit all those advantages for Beshear against loyalty to party and to Trump, as Republican challenger Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general, and his allies seek to make the race a referendum on national politics and culture-war issues such as gender identity that have animated conservatives in Kentucky and beyond. While many operatives believe Beshear has an edge, they also expect the contest to narrow in the final stretch.

Beshear “had to run a pretty much perfect campaign, which I think he has,” said Jared Smith, a Democratic operative turned lobbyist who ran Beshear’s 2015 campaign for attorney general. But “Biden’s deeply unpopular here,” he added. Traveling the state recently and hearing from Cameron supporters, he said, he got the sense the race was tightening.

Some of the themes the race has pivoted on are expected to be front and center next November, making it an early gauge of arguments both sides are testing this year — though a far from perfect one, given the unique contours of the state, including its ruby red hue.

Democrats nationally are wagering that impassioned support for abortion rights will continue to propel them to success across the political spectrum. Biden’s unpopularity looms over their efforts, as he and other Democrats pitch economic achievements party strategists hope will help overcome concerns about his age and other issues. Republicans across the country are rallying around Trump as their standard-bearer and leaning into fights over LGBTQ+ issues and policies they decry as “woke.”

The Kentucky governor’s race has been a bellwether of sorts in the past two decades, consistently swinging the same way as the following year’s presidential race. But Beshear is also benefiting from an unusual confluence of factors, limiting Democrats’ ability to replicate his cross-party appeal. Members of both parties are quick to note that voters in Kentucky — where Democrats once held a large advantage in registrations — have seen a Beshear on the ballot for decades. Steve Beshear, Andy’s father, was first elected to statewide office in 1979.

Steve Beshear helped introduce his son at the Bardstown campaign event and sang along briefly to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as Andy Beshear worked his way through the crowd, thanking people for coming.

“There’s a comfort level and a familiarity with the name,” said Tres Watson, a GOP consultant and former spokesman for the Kentucky Republican Party. And “once that name Beshear is removed from the ballot, it’s going to be a Republican governorship for the foreseeable future,” he predicted.

Trump, meanwhile, is “the X-factor” in the race given his loyal following in Kentucky, said Al Cross, a longtime political reporter. A Cameron ad that began airing in the final weeks of the race focuses on Trump’s full-throated endorsement, and this week the Republican’s campaign used its email list to blast out a new video appeal from the former president.

“I have known and worked with Daniel Cameron for a long time, and he’s good on every common-sense policy there is,” Trump says in the recording.

Beshear, in contrast, has said he supports Biden and joined him over the years for official events — but doesn’t talk about Biden on the campaign trail, even as some of the economic projects he touts reflect the president’s agenda in action. Biden’s signature infrastructure package — which McConnell also supported despite GOP backlash — is helping to rebuild the Brent Spence Bridge that features in Beshear’s ads.

Beshear squeaked by in 2019 against a remarkably unpopular GOP incumbent, and polling in past races has often underestimated Republican support. Strategists say Beshear faces a tougher opponent this time around in Cameron, a rising GOP star. As Kentucky’s first Black attorney general, Cameron played a prominent role in the state’s response to the botched police raid that killed Breonna Taylor; he would also be the state’s first Black governor if elected.

After becoming attorney general, Beshear, 45, defeated Republican incumbent Matt Bevin in the 2019 governor’s race, prevailing by just over 5,000 votes. Bevin had sometimes held the distinction of least popular governor in the country and particularly outraged teachers with changes to the state’s pension system.

The Democratic governor has steered the state through crises including the coronavirus pandemic, deadly flooding and catastrophic tornadoes. That and a focus on economic development have helped him win approval from many independents and Republicans, supporters say.

Even at a campaign stop at the University of Louisville this week — where he addressed a young audience more attuned to social issues — Beshear stuck to his core economic pitch. He touted a new hospital underway in west Louisville. “We’ve become the electric vehicle battery production capital of the United States of America!” he declared to cheers that drowned out a small gaggle of students protesting Israel.

Beshear didn’t mention abortion in those brief remarks, but he didn’t need to — supporters at multiple bus tour stops rattled off the issue first when asked why they were voting for Beshear. Commercials attacking Cameron on the subject were memorable enough that some voters brought up the “Hadley” ad, using the name of the young woman who starred in it.

Cameron, 37, has been an especially ripe target for Democrats on abortion because, as attorney general, he’s defended the state’s near-total abortion ban in court. The law does not have exceptions in cases of rape and incest; Cameron said this fall that he’d sign off on adding exceptions if the GOP-led legislature passed such a measure, but also suggested at an event soon after that he wouldn’t “proactively” change the law.

James Ackerman, 60, from Elizabethtown, isn’t a fan of Beshear and said he usually votes Republican — but he also immediately brought up Cameron’s stance on abortion as concerning to him. He’d seen the ad with Hadley Duvall, who tells voters she was raped by her stepfather. “Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” says Duvall in the ad.

“That one got my attention,” said Ackerman, who is undecided. “I actually had to look up to see who she was and what had happened to her.”

Beshear has spent nearly five times more than Cameron’s campaign on ads since Republicans chose their nominee. Cameron has raised less and burned some of his cash on a bitter primary. Outside groups have helped narrow the spending gap, bringing total ad spending in the general election phase to more than $76 million, but they pay a steeper rate than campaigns for the same airtime.

Ads from a group funded by the Republican Governors Association have attacked Beshear for months as “more liberal than you think,” hitting Beshear on crime and zeroing in on his veto of a bill banning gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers and surgeries. (The GOP’s supermajority in the state legislature overrode Beshear.)

That issue and a related fight over transgender athletes in women’s sports were front and center in Cameron’s closing pitch to voters on a bus tour this week. Riley Gaines, the former Kentucky college swimmer who once tied for fifth with a transgender woman at NCAA championships, introduced Cameron in Shepherdsville, Ky., with a question: “Do you know the difference between a man and a woman?”

Cameron assailed the Beshear administration’s orders to close churches and schools amid covid-19, which some voters echoed.

The other big theme of the event was Biden.

“We know in 2024 we want to remove Joe Biden from the White House,” Cameron said.

“Yeah!” people shouted.

“Ladies and gentlemen, before we do that, we’ve got to remove his biggest enabler here in Kentucky, and that is Andy Beshear,” Cameron said, echoing mailers that depict Beshear kneeling to “King Biden” and dressed up as a Toy Story character, acting as a puppet to a giant hand.

Beshear has rejected those charges as “anger” politics. “You know me,” he tells voters in a closing TV ad.

Cameron, meanwhile, debuted a softer message in a spot that aired this past week, even as he also tries to galvanize his base. “Andy Beshear is a nice enough guy, but our approach is different,” Cameron says.

Republicans acknowledge the governor has a good shot at reelection. But they also say Beshears have been “lucky” over the years.

“The last time the Beshears had a good opponent was 1996, when Mitch McConnell beat Steve Beshear’s brains out,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to McConnell. “And now Andy Beshear has another good opponent in Daniel Cameron.”

Susan Snipes, a conservative retiree in Elizabethtown, was still deciding how she’d vote this past week when a reporter approached her. On many issues she aligns with Cameron: For instance, she believes that life begins at conception.

But she was also frustrated that Cameron was so focused on criticizing Biden and wanted to hear more about concrete plans.

“I can’t argue with, the state is better off now than where it was,” she said.

“Yeah,” said her Republican husband, Jim Sipes. “I think it is.”

“Why would you undo that?” Susan Snipes asked.

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