LEXINGTON, Ky. — The stage is officially set for what is widely expected to be the nation’s most expensive, contentious and closely watched election of 2023 — the Kentucky governor’s race.
The Nov. 7 showdown pits popular incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear against rising GOP star Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Even in a deeply red Southern state, Republicans know Beshear will be tough to beat.
State Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said that the entire state GOP needs to be “ready to give it our all” to beat Beshear.
“(Cameron) has to understand that he’s gonna have to work harder than he has in any of his previous campaigns in order to beat Andy Beshear,” Thayer said.
Cameron, 37, beat a field of 11 other Republican contenders by bolstering his record of taking Beshear to court, promoting his Christian values and touting his endorsement of former President Donald Trump. The GOP primary was the most expensive in Kentucky history, with former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft throwing millions of dollars of her personal wealth into the race, much of which was spent on attack ads against Cameron.
In a post-election speech, Cameron recognized the historic nature of his nomination; Cameron is the first Black person to win a major party nomination for Kentucky governor in the commonwealth’s history and would be the first Black Republican governor in U.S. history if elected.
”This campaign has tried to embody the promise of America, that if you work hard and if you stand on principle, anything is possible,” he said. “Tonight we prove that here in Kentucky, the American Dream is alive and well, because here in Kentucky, you aren’t judged by the color of your skin, but the content of your character.”
Beshear, 45, has held Kentucky’s top elected office through a tumultuous three years that included the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating tornadoes and historic flooding, after besting incumbent Matt Bevin by about 5,000 votes in the 2019 election. Beshear was attorney general prior to Cameron, and his father, Steve Beshear, was a two-term governor of Kentucky.
In his optimistic acceptance speech Tuesday night - Beshear was challenged by two opponents he easily beat - the governor focused on “leading with love and compassion” compared to what he saw from the other side’s sometimes-bitter primary.
“My potential opponents have been blanketing our airwaves,” Beshear said before the race was called for Cameron. “They’re attacking, slinging mud, calling each other names. ... Their commercials are a steady, dangerous drumbeat of fear and division, running Kentucky down, attacking our educators, our healthcare heroes, anyone that they can make the boogeyman that month.”
On the issues, the two men stand in stark contrast: Cameron’s office defends the state abortion ban against legal challenges while Beshear has denounced it as extreme; Beshear took a cautious approach to COVID, closing businesses and schools, while Cameron fought those measures in court; Beshear vetoed legislation that would restrict health care for transgender kids, saying it would lead to an increase in youth suicide, which Cameron said showed the governor was “beholden to the far left.”
All three governor’s races this off-year cycle — Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi — are in states that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2020. While the governor’s mansion is held by Democrats in both Kentucky and Louisiana, the latter’s John Bel Edwards is term-limited, leaving Beshear as the sole Democratic incumbent up for re-election this year.
Outside groups like the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association — and a number of political action committees — have already begun pouring their efforts into the Kentucky contest.
With six months to go, that’s only going to intensify.
Can the GOP unite to defeat Beshear?
Though all GOP candidates — from second-place finisher Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles down to sixth-place Somerset Mayor Alan Keck — preached unity in getting behind Cameron’s campaign, some supporters of theirs are unsure if Cameron can win.
Misha Gover, a retired speech pathologist, said she believes that Craft was the only candidate who had the ability to beat Beshear.
“I’m for her,” Gover said. “I’m not for anybody else, and nobody else can beat Beshear.”
Thayer, the state senator, thinks hitting Beshear on COVID-19 mitigation policies, as Cameron has already done, should continue to be a priority – from the detrimental effects of remote learning to state police taking down churchgoers’ license plate numbers to the “debacle” at the state unemployment insurance office.
Anna Whites, a Frankfort-based attorney involved in Kentucky Democratic politics, said that she thinks the race will be closer than some Democrats might hope but that Beshear will be buoyed by a positive message.
“I think people are hungry for optimism and happiness,” she said. “If I was advising Beshear I’d like him to feel confident and keep that positive, forward-facing frontrunner attitude… Cameron is going to focus on fear: ‘They’re destroying your children. They’re letting the transgenders run wild, they’re murdering all the babies.’”
Thayer, however, said that the GOP would be wise to try to “nationalize” the race by framing Beshear as a blue-blooded liberal on issues like abortion.
“Andy Beshear is a left wing liberal, he’s just very good at hiding it,” Thayer said. “He’s been able to preside over some disasters and challenges and appear to be the empathizer in chief.”
There’s some differing opinions among Republicans as to whether Cameron should lean into red meat conservative issues or if moderates are the key to beating Beshear. Andrew Cooperrider, who finished second to state treasurer GOP nominee Mark Metcalf, thinks Cameron needs to focus on exciting Republicans.
“Republicans, especially in such a red state, need a conservative candidate that can really electrify the base in the same way that Trump did nationally. Cameron is going to need to get out there and message to the Republican base, beyond just COVID, what he would do differently than Beshear,” Cooperrider said.
Whites said the varying strategies raise the possibility of Cameron and Beshear not addressing each other’s messages too often – that Cameron will focus on national and social issues, whereas Beshear will hit on state-specific parts of his platform like economic development announcements and education.
“They are going to talk past each other,” Whites said.
Beshear, Cameron on the issues
It seems clear that the current attorney general wants to relitigate Beshear’s handling of COVID-19. Cameron’s first television ad took aim at the governor for sending the Kentucky State Police to record license plates at “mass gatherings,” including churches, on Easter weekend to notify the person’s health department.
“Governor Beshear ignored the constitution and shut churches down… Kentucky deserves a governor who respects our laws and our freedoms, a governor who knows only liberty creates prosperity and only faith can keep us strong,” Cameron said in the ad.
Beshear, meanwhile, was a consistent presence in many voters’ lives through the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. His office held daily pressers when the virus was at its peak, providing regular information updates and encouragement that “we will get through this together.
His actions during the pandemic prompted the creation of a Facebook group where users made posts comparing him to feel-good television icon Mr. Rogers, among others. The Associated Press recently dubbed him “the consoler in chief.”
On abortion, the two candidates have staked out contrasting positions.
Beshear has vetoed several anti-abortion bills passed by the GOP legislature, including one that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, crack down on abortion medication and put up barriers for minors seeking access to the procedure.
Beshear has said in the past that the previously-recognized Roe v. Wade standard of allowing abortions until 24 weeks into pregnancy was “generally right.”
“This ultimately should be a rare but legal procedure. There are reasonable restrictions that could be placed on it,” Beshear said. “I’ve always been against late-term procedures.”
Meanwhile, Cameron supports the current trigger ban on abortion, which includes no exceptions for rape or incest, that’s been in place since a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe.
Cameron’s office is currently defending the ban against a legal challenge before the Kentucky Supreme Court. That case is pending.
In his post-election speech, Beshear also signaled that he’s going to run on the state of the economy, which Cameron and other Republicans say he takes too much credit for.
Beshear said good economic news has been accomplished by talking up Kentucky’s workforce and people.
”But everybody on the other side, everybody else who’s running for this office, has been doing the opposite,” he said. “Right now, somewhere in America, there is a CEO deciding where to move their business and they’re considering Kentucky. Let me ask you: Is seeing people talk down our state and our economy, insult our people and stoke divisions going to help that next company choose Kentucky?”
Social issues beyond abortion will clearly play a role in Cameron’s messaging, too, if his recent speech is any indication.
“The new religion of the left casts doubt on the greatness of America. They embrace a picture of this country and this commonwealth that is rooted in division that is hostile to faith, that is committed to the erosion of our education system.”
Cameron also hit several of his go-to campaign talking points: that violent crime is rampant under Beshear, trans athletes are a threat to women in sports and schools are “on the verge of becoming breeding grounds for liberal and progressive ideas.”
(Reporter Madison Carter contributed to this report.)