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Price on Politics: the 2023 Kentucky Governor’s Election

Alexandria Anderson

On Nov. 7, Kentucky went to the polls to elect its governor and the commonwealth’s other constitutional officers. These other offices included Kentucky’s attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner.

The commonwealth’s gubernatorial race was closely watched by politicos across the nation, as it was one of only three governor’s elections taking place in the United States this year (the other two being Mississippi and Louisiana).

For decades, Kentucky has been a deep red state. That’s why it was so surprising when Andy Beshear, a Democrat, defeated Matt Bevin, the sitting Republican governor, in 2019.

Beshear, however, had it slightly easier in 2019. He was running against an unpopular incumbent governor who not only cut the pensions of Kentucky’s public school teachers but continued to call them “selfish” and saying that they have a “thug mentality.”

This was just the tip of the iceberg for Bevin’s unpopularity, and it led many republicans to defect, voting for Beshear because of their dislike of the governor.

The race in 2019, however, was tight. Beshear defeated Bevin by only 5,136 votes, according to the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office. After the election, pundits immediately began wondering whether Beshear would hold on to his office in 2023.

This is a valid question. Kentucky is a deep red state that has voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election since 2000. It has not elected a Democrat to the United States Senate since before 1999. Of the six members of the Kentucky delegation in the United States House of Representatives, five of them are Republicans. Of the 100 members of the State House of Representatives, 80 are Republican. Of the 38 members of the Kentucky Senate, 31 are Republican.

In short, Kentucky elects Republicans. A lot. And that makes Beshear’s win even more of a feat.

The governor’s win, however, was much larger than his win in 2019. Where he only won by just over 5,100 votes in 2019, Beshear defeated his challenger, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, by 67,081 votes. Beshear won 29 of the commonwealth’s 120 counties, an increase from winning 23 counties in 2019.

So, what accounted for this win?

Beshear was able to flip several counties throughout the state from red to blue. Many of these counties were in Eastern Kentucky – counties like Letcher, Perry, Clark and Powell. Three of these counties – Letcher, Perry and Powell – were among those most impacted by the flooding that took place in the region during the summer of 2022.

As morbid as it sounds, Beshear’s response to the flooding likely helped him in the region. Over and over again, Beshear visited the flooding sites. He did so from the very beginning, promising to help the region rebuild. He established the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, which has raised over $13.2 million for families.

To Eastern Kentuckians, Beshear was a rock and a guiding light during some of the most difficult times. He was humanized in a way his opponent never was in the region, and that helped him greatly.

There was a similar effect in Western Kentucky, but to a smaller effect. The December 2021 tornadoes that devastated parts of the region, like Mayfield, saw Beshear return to the region in his promise to be there and to help rebuild many times. The Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund was established and has raised over $52.3 million.

Once again, Beshear was humanized in a way that Cameron was not. This did not seem to help Beshear, however, who was unable to flip any county impacted by the Dec. 2021 tornado. The only county Beshear was able to flip was Daviess County, home to Owensboro. Beshear did see an increase of support in these counties, however. According to WPSD Local 6 News, five counties impacted by the tornadoes – Graves, Hopkins, Caldwell, Muhlenberg and Warren – saw increases in support for the governor. Of these counties, Warren was the only to swing for Beshear.

Once again, the results in Warren County were close. Of Beshear’s 5,136 vote win across Kentucky in 2019, the Democrat won Warren County by 1,131 votes. In 2023, Beshear defeated Cameron in the county by 1,480 votes. Warren County shows just how divided Kentucky can be.

Throughout the campaign, abortion was a key issue. Beshear consistently voiced his support for abortion exceptions for rape and incests. He seeks to preserve at least these exceptions while Cameron throughout the campaign flipped back and forth, seeming unclear as to whether he would support these same exceptions.

In 2022, Kentuckians voted on a constitutional amendment that would prevent the commonwealth from passing any law allowing abortions. Kentuckians rejected this amendment, with 66,598 voting against it. This was a surprising outcome for many in such a red state, but it showed that more people of the commonwealth supported some kind of abortion rights than expected. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that many of these voters who rejected the amendment also rejected Cameron for his views on abortion, which could have had a greater impact on the race.

There is also a factor that was at play in the election that some thought would have a larger impact than it did – former president Donald Trump.

In June 2022, Trump endorsed Cameron for governor. After it was announced that Trump’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, was running against Cameron in the GOP primary, Trump doubled down, giving Cameron his “Complete and Total Endorsement” in the race.

This should have helped Cameron more than it did. In the 2016 Presidential Election, Trump won 62.52% of the vote in Kentucky. In 2020, he won 62.09% of the vote. Kentuckians love Trump, and many times his endorsement carries weight in the commonwealth.

Throughout the campaign, Cameron leaned into this endorsement. Any chance he got, he was reminding voters that he was the Trump-backed candidate and that Beshear was a supporter of Biden. In nationalizing the race, Cameron sought to paint himself as a Trump-supporting Republican who would pull Kentucky away from the “woke” policies of Beshear and the Biden Democrats.

It did not work, however. Beshear focused his campaign on issues that actually mattered to Kentuckians – the opioid crisis, the economy, public safety, public education and more – and this appealed to more Kentuckians than the radical, MAGA views of Cameron, Trump and the majority of the Republican base in the commonwealth.

But what does this election mean for Kentucky?

It means that there will continue to be economic growth, a continued focus on education, a defender for abortion and LGBTQ+ rights in the commonwealth and more.

During Beshear’s first term, he brought to Kentucky the two largest private-sector investments in Kentucky’s history, which contributed to the $27.8 billion in new private sector investments. Nearly 49,000 new jobs were created, unemployment saw record lows, law enforcement was supported, sports betting and medical marijuana were legalized and so much more.

With this victory, the Beshear-Coleman administration will be able to continue this good work that has greatly helped Kentucky.

Beshear’s election, however, does raise questions about his future and the future of Kentucky Democrats. After his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor found himself in the national conversation, with some seeing him as a potential candidate for the United States Senate, vice president, president or being tapped for a cabinet position in the Biden administration.

The 2023 election further launched Beshear into the national spotlight. On Election Night, Politico posted on X that we should “Expect the 2028 presidential buzz to begin” for Beshear.

Beshear would make a solid candidate for national office in the future because he won reelection as a Democrat in a solidly Republican state. He can present a path for unity and moderation in the face of an increasingly divided society.

For Kentucky Democrats, however, Beshear’s win presents a timeline of decline. As the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth wrote, “Andy Beshear could be Kentucky’s last Democratic governor for decades.” Gerth makes a valid point – who do Kentucky Democrats run after Beshear? There are a few names, like Beshear’s Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman or his Senior Adviser Rocky Adkins, but their name recognition is low. 

And the fact is that, despite Beshear’s win, Republicans won every single other constitutional position up and down the ballot. Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the General Assembly, and there is no sign of this going away soon.

Beshear is a unique case. He ran against a hugely unpopular governor in 2019. He is extremely personable, which makes him extremely popular. Many Kentuckians refer to him as simply “Andy.” His handling of COVID-19 and the natural disasters of December 2021 and summer 2022 showed people that he genuinely cares for them. It will be extremely difficult for another Democrat to fill his shoes.

But Beshear does not need to focus on running for governor again. Instead, he has an opportunity to put possible successors in prominent positions that allow for people to gain notoriety.

In addition to this, he is able to continue governing. He is able to continue the growth and progress he has started, continuing to create a better, safer Kentucky.

Beshear’s win is a continuation of his positive policies that benefit all Kentuckians. The next four years will be years of continued growth compared to the policies Cameron proposed. Beshear can help create a better Kentucky if he just keeps doing what he is doing.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @pricewilborn.

If you would like to submit a reaction to a piece, Letter to the Editor or other submission, please send it to commentary editor Price Wilborn at [email protected] or [email protected].

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