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Does national politics trump all? Kentucky voters are about to find out

Candidates and supporters of Beshear and Cameron gather ahead of a gubernatorial debate in October.
Sylvia Goodman
/
Kentucky Public Radio
Candidates and supporters of Beshear and Cameron gather ahead of a gubernatorial debate in October.

Updated November 7, 2023 at 1:49 PM ET

Kentucky's gubernatorial race is in a dead heat as Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear faces off against Trump-endorsed state Attorney General Daniel Cameron in a race that has become a test on the potency of national politics.

Beshear won office in 2019, beating an unpopular Republican incumbent. A year later, Kentuckians voted for then-President Trump by an overwhelming 26 points. Voters also solidified a Republican stranglehold 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 has remained high. A recent Morning Consult pollfound 43% of Kentucky Republicans approve of Beshear.

"Beshear has a following," said Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky.

"There are tens of thousands of people in the state to whom he's just Andy."

Cross says Beshear, 45, has been able 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 received attention for his leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic, deadly tornadoes, record flooding and ice storms.

He also has the advantage of established political infrastructure.

"If you're an incumbent leading in the polls, you're hard to beat," Cross said.

Beshear is squaring off against the Republican Cameron. Cameron has the endorsement of Trump, who remains overwhelmingly popular in Kentucky.

Daniel Cameron is keen on making the Kentucky gubernatorial race a referendum on national politics.
Hannah Saad / Kentucky Public Radio
/
Kentucky Public Radio
Daniel Cameron is keen on making the Kentucky gubernatorial race a referendum on national politics.

Cameron is intent on making the contest a proxy for national political battles. The election, which concludes Tuesday, will be a significant test of how much President Biden's popularity — or lack thereof — will matter in statewide contests.

Cameron has frequently portrayed the race as the difference between "crazy and normal" as he pitches himself to Kentucky voters.

"It's unbelievable, I dare say crazy, that you'd have a governor who would endorse the policies and the president who have created this mess that we're in," Cameron said, referring largely to inflation.

Cameron, 37, is a relative newcomer to Kentucky politics, having served a single term as the state's attorney general. He has strong ties to a powerful Kentucky Republican — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He first met McConnell when he was awarded the prominent senator's scholarship for an undergraduate degree, and would later serve as his legal counsel — a role in which he helped shepherd the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

There's a historic nature to Cameron's bid as well. If elected, he would be Kentucky's first Black governor and the first Black Republican governor in the country 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, prompting protests in Louisville and across the country. As attorney general, Cameron attracted national scrutiny for not recommending officers be charged for their role in Taylor's death.

Taylor's mother Tameka Palmer joined up with Until Freedom to oppose Cameron and encourage Black Kentuckians to vote.

Beshear also came under fire from some activists for calling in the National Guard to Louisville in the midst of the racial-justice protests years ago. National Guard members were then involved in the killing of David McAtee, a Black restaurant owner killed outside his business.

Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has talked about abortion rights as part of his reelection campaign.
Hannah Saad / Kentucky Public Radio
/
Kentucky Public Radio
Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has talked about abortion rights as part of his reelection campaign.

Role of abortion rights in campaign

Unlike Ohio, abortion access is not directly on the ballot in Kentucky. But that hasn't stopped Beshear from putting the issue front and center in his campaign.

Abortion is currently banned in the state unless the mother is in danger of death or permanent injury.

In 2022, Kentuckians rejected adding language to the state constitution that would make it harder to challenge abortion restrictions. Abortion rights has been on the ballot in seven states — red and blue — since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. In each instance, anti-abortion groups lost.

Campaigning around broadening abortion rights is a rare strategy for Democrats running in the socially conservative state, but Beshear has made the lack of exceptions in cases of rape and incest in the current ban a focal point of his campaign.

"I believe that victims of rape and incest deserve options, that there has to be an exception," Beshear said at a gubernatorial debate. "Some of these girls are as young as 9 years old and my opponent would make them carry their rapist's baby."

Beshear's campaign has been airing ads that feature a woman who talks about being raped by her stepfather as a child.

"This is to you, Daniel Cameron: to tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable," the woman in the ad says.

Initially, Cameron fully supported the state's total ban and cheered the Supreme Court's overturning of the constitutional right to abortion. But after Beshear and his supporters ran a series of ads attacking Cameron for not supporting exceptions for rape and incest, Cameron wavered slightly on his stance.

"Look, I think that the legislature, if they work on this, I will sign those exceptions," Cameron said. "But at the end of the day, I'm the pro-life candidate."

During the debate, Cameron refused to clarify his stance on 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 starkly different picture.

Beshear has pointed to recent economic development and large-scale infrastructure projects — which were partially funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law Biden signed in 2021.

But Cameron points to inflationary pressure and the state's comparatively low workforce participation rate.

Pointing to inflation, Cameron has claimed Beshear is "beholden" to Biden and national Democrats. Beshear quietly endorsed Biden for president in 2024, but said he frequently disagrees with his policies.

While Beshear isn't talking about his national political connections, Cameron is quick to tout his own endorsement from Trump. Trump didn't visit Kentucky to campaign with Cameron, but he did release an endorsement video and joined Cameron for a "tele-rally" Monday evening.

In the call, Cameron called the former president his "good friend."

"This is a race about our kids and our grandkids. It's about making sure that this commonwealth has a governor that, rather than endorse Joe Biden which is what we have in Andy Beshear, will actually stand up and fight against Joe Biden," Cameron said as he introduced Trump.

Trump put it in even blunter terms: a vote for Cameron, he said, is a vote for him and a blow against Biden.

Beshear urges voters to put party politics aside

Beshear's campaign has released a series of ads featuring Trump supporters and Republicans saying they will vote for Beshear because he also represents their interests.

In a debate, Beshear said the ads were meant to encourage voters to shed their party affiliations.

"People should be able to vote for whoever they want, not stick to just one team or another but to 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 registered Democratic registration has fallen.

Kentucky Republicans are particularly motivated in presidential elections. In odd-years, Democrats and Republicans tend to show up at roughly similar rates.

Kentucky's Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, who is running for reelection this cycle, said off-year turnout is typically low.

"You have people that come out of the woodwork to vote for a president, and then the officers that are far more important to their daily lives and their quality of living — they don't vote for that," he said.

Adams said he's seen the effect in his own campaign. When he tries to talk about state politics, he says he's met with blank stares.

"People kind of look at you like they've never heard any of this before," Adams said. "And then you take questions and the questions are about Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan."

In 2015, just 30.6% of voterscast ballots. In 2019, more than two in five Kentuckians voted — one of the highest rates for an off-year election in the state.

Adams has been an advocate for introducing early voting in Kentucky, and this will be the first gubernatorial race in the state where Kentuckians had the option to vote an extra three days. More than 260,000 Kentuckians have already taken advantage of this early voting, a small increase over last year's midterm election.

This year's gubernatorial race has also been one of the most expensive in state history. The two candidates and their supporting PACs have spent over $59 million since the primary, more than double the amount in the previous gubernatorial race.

The results of this election will shed light on just how much partisan lines are deepening and whether national political allegiances trump all ahead of the 2024 election cycle.

Not to mention — Kentucky voters have a habit of gauging the national mood. The winning parties of the state's last six gubernatorial elections have matched the presidential election results a year later.


This coverage comes to us from Kentucky Public Radio, a four-station collaborative of Louisville Public Media, WKU Public Radio, WKMS and WEKU. For more of their coverage from across Kentucky, click here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Goodman