Does national politics trump everything? Kentucky voters are about to find out.
The race for governor of Kentucky is witnessing intense tension, as current Democratic President Andy Beshear faces the state’s attorney general, who is supported by Trump, Daniel Cameron, in a race that has become a test of the effectiveness of national policy.
Beshear won office in 2019, defeating an unpopular Republican incumbent. A year later, Kentuckians voted for then-President Trump by a landslide of 26 points. Voters also strengthened Republicans’ hold on the state Legislature, gaining 14 additional seats in the state House of Representatives.
But despite being a blue dot in a very red state government, Beshear’s popularity remained high. A recent Morning Consult poll found that 43 percent of Kentucky Republicans approve of Beshear.
“Bashir has a following,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Society at the University of Kentucky.
“There are tens of thousands of people in the state who just think of him as Andy.”
Cross says Bashir, 45, has managed to create a unique brand for himself.
Even before he first ran for office in 2015, his family name was familiar to many Kentuckians. His father, Steve Beshear, has been involved in state politics since 1974 and served as governor from 2007 to 2015.
Andy Beshear has received attention for his leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic, deadly hurricanes, record flooding, and ice storms.
It also has the advantage of a well-established political infrastructure.
“If you’re a candidate ahead in the polls, it’s hard to beat you,” Cross said.
Beshear is waging a battle against the state’s Republican Attorney General, Daniel Cameron. Cameron has the support of Trump, who remains overwhelmingly popular in Kentucky.
Cameron intends to make the competition a proxy for national political battles. The election, which ends Tuesday, will be an important test of how much President Biden’s popularity — or lack thereof — matters in statewide contests.
Cameron often portrays the race as the difference between “crazy and normal” as he pitches to Kentucky voters.
“It’s incredible, dare I say crazy, to have a governor who supports the policies and a president who has created this mess we’re in,” Cameron said, largely referring to inflation.
Cameron, 37, is a relative newcomer to Kentucky politics, having served one term as state attorney general. He has strong ties to the powerful Republican in Kentucky – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He first met McConnell when he received the eminent senator’s undergraduate degree scholarship, and later served as his legal advisor — a role in which he helped shepherd the confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
There’s a historical nature to Cameron’s show, too. If elected, he would be the first black governor of Kentucky and the nation’s first black Republican governor since Reconstruction.
For some Kentuckians and onlookers, the election is also a poignant reminder of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in a police raid in 2020, sparking protests in Louisville and across the country. As prosecutor, Cameron attracted national scrutiny because he did not recommend charging the officers for their role in Taylor’s death.
Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, joined the “Until Freedom” movement to oppose Cameron and encourage black Kentuckians to vote.
Beshear has also been criticized by some activists for calling in the National Guard to Louisville in the midst of racial justice protests years ago. Then National Guard members were involved in the killing of David McAtee, a black restaurant owner who was killed outside of his business.
The role of abortion rights in the campaign
Unlike Ohio, abortion access is not directly on the ballot in Kentucky. But that did not prevent Bashir from putting this issue front and center in his election campaign.
Abortion is currently prohibited in the state unless the mother is at risk of death or permanent injury.
In 2022, Kentuckians rejected adding language to the state constitution that would make it more difficult to challenge abortion restrictions. Abortion rights have been on the ballot in seven states — red and blue — since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. In each case, anti-abortion groups lost.
Campaigning on expanding abortion rights is a rare strategy for Democrats running in the socially conservative state, but Beshear has made the lack of exceptions for rape and incest in the current ban a focal point of his campaign.
“I believe that victims of rape and incest deserve choices, and there should be an exception,” Beshear said in a gubernatorial debate. “Some of these girls were as young as 9 years old, and my opponent was making them carry their rapist’s child.”
Bashir’s campaign is running ads featuring a woman talking about being raped by her stepfather when she was a child.
“This is for you, Daniel Cameron: To tell a 12-year-old girl that she must have a child with a stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.” says the woman in the ad.
Initially, Cameron fully supported the state’s blanket ban, and cheered the Supreme Court’s overturn of the constitutional right to abortion. But after Beshear and his supporters ran a series of ads attacking Cameron for not supporting rape and incest exceptions, Cameron wavered slightly on his position.
“Look, I think the Legislature, if they act on this, I will sign these exceptions,” Cameron said. “But at the end of the day, I am the pro-life candidate.”
During the discussion, Cameron refused to clarify his position on the exceptions and whether he would push the legislature to adopt them, if elected.
Another point of contention is the state of the economy, with each candidate painting a very different picture.
Beshear pointed to recent economic development and large-scale infrastructure projects — which were partly funded under the bipartisan infrastructure law Biden signed in 2021.
But Cameron points to inflationary pressures and the state’s relatively low labor force participation rate.
Referring to inflation, Cameron said Beshear was “beholden” to Biden and the national Democrats. Beshear has quietly endorsed Biden for president in 2024, but said he often disagrees with his policies.
While Bashir does not talk about his national political ties, Cameron is quick to tout Trump’s support for him. Trump did not visit Kentucky to campaign with Cameron, but he released a video of his endorsement and joined Cameron in a “phone rally” on Monday evening.
In the call, Cameron described the former president as his “dear friend.”
“This is a race about our children and our grandchildren. This is about making sure that this commonwealth has a governor who, instead of endorsing Joe Biden, which we have in Andy Beshear, will stand up and fight against Joe Biden,” Cameron added. He said as he introduced Trump.
Trump put it in even blunter terms: He said that a vote for Cameron was a vote for him and a strike against Biden.
Beshear urges voters to put partisan politics aside
Beshear’s campaign released a series of ads featuring Trump supporters and Republicans saying they would vote for Beshear because he represented their interests as well.
In one debate, Beshear said the ads were intended to encourage voters to abandon their party affiliations.
“People should be able to vote for whoever they want, and not just stick to one team or another, but actually look at the candidates and say, ‘Who is going to make my life better?’” Beshear said.
Voter turnout will be crucial.
Since Beshear was elected governor, the number of registered Republicans in Kentucky has risen, while the number of registered Democrats has declined..
Kentucky Republicans are particularly enthusiastic in the presidential election. In odd-numbered years, Democrats and Republicans tend to turn out at roughly similar rates.
Republican Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, who is running for re-election this cycle, said off-year turnout is typically low.
“You have people coming off work to vote for a chief, and then officers that are more important to their daily lives and their quality of living — they don’t vote for that,” he said.
Adams said he saw the impact in his own campaign. When he tries to talk about state politics, he says he is met with blank stares.
“People look at you like they’ve never heard any of this before,” Adams said. “Then you get questions and the questions are about Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan.”
In 2015, only 30.6% of voters cast their ballots. In 2019, more than two in five Kentuckians voted — one of the highest rates in off-year elections in the state.
Adams has been a proponent of introducing early voting in Kentucky, and this will be the first gubernatorial race in the state where Kentuckians had the option to vote for an additional three days. More than 260,000 Kentuckians have already taken advantage of this early voting, which is a slight increase compared to last year’s midterm elections.
This year’s gubernatorial race was also one of the most expensive in state history. The two candidates and their supporting political action committees have spent more than $59 million since the primary, more than double the amount in the previous gubernatorial race.
The results of this election will highlight how deep partisan lines run and whether national political loyalties trump all else ahead of the 2024 election cycle.
Not to mention, Kentucky voters have a habit of gauging the national mood. The winning parties in the state’s last six gubernatorial elections matched the results of the presidential elections held a year later.
This coverage comes to us from Kentucky Public Radio, a four-station collaboration between Louisville Public Media, WKU Public Radio, WKMS and WEKU. For more of their coverage from across Kentucky, click here.
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