Beshear Today, Gone Tomorrow? Kentucky Governor’s Race is a Tossup.

The 2022 midterms are barely behind us and attention of political media has already turned to 2024. However, before a Republican presidential hopeful so much as whiffs their first steak-on-a-stick at the Iowa State Fair, one overlooked contest may have a lot more to tell us about the nation’s political climate. While 2021 had its Virginia gubernatorial, in this off-year we turn our attention to Kentucky. Typically unaccustomed to closely contested general elections, the Bluegrass is now on a trajectory to become the center of political discourse, as incumbent Democratic governor Andy Beshear fights to retain his seat in what will surely play out as the most competitive election this calendar year. 

With the election outcome hinged upon the cross pressures of Beshear’s high approvals, strong geographic fundamentals, the growing ossification of a partisan electorate, and a Republican challenger yet to be determined, Split Ticket starts this race out as a Tossup.

Concerning state level elections in Kentucky

On the presidential level, Kentucky has been deep red since the start of the new millennium. Donald Trump won the state by 26 points in 2020, and before that with 30 points in 2016. Bill Clinton is the last Democratic presidential candidate to have won Kentucky — in 1996 with 44.6 percent of the vote — and no Democrat has crossed 50 percent since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Ancestral Democrats in down ballot races, however, have been more resilient to national trends. For seats such as those in the General Assembly and State Senate, a large number of Assembly and Senate Democrats were able to hold onto incumbency well into the 2010’s. This is particularly true of legislators representing rural, tight-knit communities, where personal relationships triumph over national partisan affiliation. Here, Democratic Party affiliation is a representation of heritage more than it is of ideology.

The even-year calendaring of legislative elections has infused these local races with much of the national issue environment and rapid polarization effects, but Kentucky had been unique in that the state’s ancestral Democratic tradition was one of the last holdouts against realignment. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 that control of the General Assembly flipped to Republicans. Assembly Democrats were unable to escape the radioactive association with Hillary Clinton, who famously declared her intent to “put the coal companies out of business.” A Democratic plurality in party affiliation was also an enduring holdout of the commonwealth’s Democratic roots, lasting until mid-2022

Kentucky holds statewide races for executive office in odd years, electing its governor, attorney general, and other statewide executive offices to four year terms. In the past thirty years, the state has elected only two Republican governors, both of whom served only one term. Compared to state legislative and congressional elections, the calendaring of the gubernatorial contest means that executive seats have enjoyed some relative insulation from the national culture wars. Depending on the placement of these off year elections, Kentucky’s statewide contests have served as both lagging or leading indicators of the direction of partisanship in the Bluegrass State.  

A case study in the suburbs 

An in-depth postmortem of Andy Beshear’s 2019 victory may be useful to revisit at a later date, but to illustrate some of Beshear’s geographic hotspots, it’s worth taking a look at the following map: a comparison in Fayette County of Amy McGrath’s 2018 close, but ultimately unsuccessful, challenge to incumbent congressman Andy Barr, versus Andy Beshear’s narrowly victory over incumbent governor Matt Bevin. 

This is not the Amy McGrath campaign of 2020, but rather one of many breakout candidates in the 2018 blue wave. In her first run for federal office, the former Marine fighter pilot came within 3 percent — only 10 thousand votes — of unseating longtime incumbent Andy Barr. Still, as shown in the above map, McGrath came up short in suburbs and exurbs that dot central Kentucky and much of the district. 

Beshear strikingly overperformed McGrath in South Lexington’s upper middle class suburban precincts, home to a less populist flavor of Republicans. The lighter red precincts ringing metropolitan Lexington hint at Beshear’s ability to compete even into the exurbs, and into bedroom communities of Lexington such as Richmond, Berea, and Georgetown. In neighboring Madison County, Beshear overperformed McGrath by nearly 10 points to win a narrow majority. The same is true for Scott County, bordering Fayette, where Beshear overperformed McGrath by around 7 points. 

Any would-be hopefuls looking to take on Barr in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district, now with a Split Ticket CVI of R +14.7, would be wise to use Beshear’s campaign as a roadmap. This seat would have readily flipped had McGrath pulled equivalent margins in Fayette, Scott, and Madison Counties — never mind the rest of the district.

The case for a likely Beshear victory

Morning Consult, which tracks quarterly gubernatorial approval ratings across the country, ranks Beshear as the most popular Democratic governor in the country. His approvals, which have hovered around the high 50’s, are especially strong in ruby-red Kentucky. To keep an eye on these numbers as we approach November, Split Ticket has launched a Beshear approval tracker. The tracker folds in approval numbers from partisan and nonpartisan sources across the commonwealth as they are made public. 

His tenure in Frankfort has not been an easy one, and each year of his tenure has come with a major disaster: COVID, the devastating 2021 tornado in Western Kentucky, and the central Appalachia flooding in 2022. A buoyant approval rating in the face of each subsequent challenge is promising.  

Where many Democratic governors might have had to answer for stricter COVID mitigation measures, Beshear’s emergency powers were summarily curtailed by the Kentucky Legislature, and vaccine uptake, particularly amongst the 65 and over crowd, is not as startlingly low as one might imagine in a Trump +26 state. Across the Bluegrass, Central Appalachia, and Northeastern Kentucky, vaccination rates are relatively high — especially compared to neighboring counties in Western Virginia.

The case against

2019 was narrow — narrow, narrow. Turnout in the 2019 gubernatorial jumped 12 points from 2015 to hit 42 percent, with 1.4 million total votes cast. Turnout in previous years numbered consistently in the nine-hundred-thousands since last crossing the million-vote mark in 2007, when Andy’s father, Steve Beshear was first elected. Boosted in part by renewed participation, Governor Beshear eked out a victory by a margin of about five thousand votes, or 0.4 percent of total votes cast. That’s close — closer than any of Kentucky’s gubernatorial elections in the past two decades. 

Others have observed the dwindling power of incumbency in topping partisanship, and while status quo bias remains a powerful drive, Republican strength in Kentucky has only grown, and the grim truth is that Beshear cannot afford the net loss of so much as an inch of ground.

A closely watched contest with a crowded field, Kentucky political insiders view the race as a contest between former UN Ambassador Kelly Craft, sitting Attorney General Daniel Cameron, and sitting Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. 

Kraft, who succeeded Nikki Haley as Trump’s pick for UN ambassador, has access to virtually unlimited financial resources — most notably through her marriage to coal billionaire Joe Craft, this may prove to insulate her from the consequences of a pattern of unforced errors. 

Cameron, the sitting Attorney General closely aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell, boasts the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. He was the strongest performer, but still trailed Beshear 40 to 49 in a series of hypothetical head-to-heads in a January 2023 poll of Republican primary voters conducted by Mason-Dixon.

Is the Bluegrass a red state?

This is not a field of particularly unsound or unhinged candidates. While we don’t know who the nominee will be, the Republican Primary is May 16th — a fact worth noting on its own, as a relatively early primary date means that between today and election day, Republicans have twice as long to attack Beshear than they will one another. With a little under six months for the party to recoup, rally, and go on the offensive, Beshear’s current approval numbers can prove ultimately vulnerable.

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