Why Kentucky’s Democratic governor is heading for re-election

Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.

Your browser does not support the <audio> element.

ASKED TO DESCRIBE the politics of Kentucky, many would default to calling it Trump country. And they would have many points in their favour. But others object. “It’s Beshear country!” yells Steve Beshear, the state’s Democratic governor between 2007 and 2015, unzipping his bomber jacket to show a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan for dramatic effect. He, too, has a point. On a wet Saturday morning in Lexington he was the warm-up act for his son, Andy Beshear, the sitting Democratic governor of the state, who is running for re-election on November 7th. Incredibly for a state that went for Mr Trump by 26 percentage points in 2020, current polls make Beshear the Younger the favourite.

As in Appalachia and the American South, Democrats once swept Kentucky. In recent elections, Democrats have managed to convince themselves that one of their number has a chance of winning a prominent statewide race, and then raise fabulous sums of money, only to face a drubbing at the ballot box. Thus in 2020 Amy McGrath, a serially unsuccessful Democratic candidate, raised $90m in her race to unseat the Republican senator Mitch McConnell—only to lose by 20 points. Yet the state has spent more years this century being governed by a Democrat than by a Republican. And it may now be in for another four years of the same.

That should be instructive for Democrats. Both Beshear père and fils have managed to keep an arm’s-length relationship with presidents of their own party. They have done so by touting the economic benefits of federal spending. Despite the unpopularity of Obamacare, the elder Beshear pushed through an expansion to Medicaid, the health-insurance programme for the poor, and a state-run insurance exchange (which Republicans are no longer campaigning to undo). The younger Beshear touts private-sector investments spurred on by the Inflation Reduction Act, a big subsidy bill, even as he murmurs objections to some federal environmental rules. “The things that are going on from infrastructure to public education to health care in Kentucky to new jobs are a lot more important to a Kentuckian than whatever they’re arguing about in Washington, DC,” says the governor.

That is why Daniel Cameron, the current state attorney-general and Republican challenger to Mr Beshear, is trying his utmost to link the relatively popular Democratic governor to the deeply unpopular Democratic president. He argues that the economy is hardly as Mr Beshear presents it. “The median household income has dropped 12%…and we have the lowest workforce participation that’s been recorded in Kentucky’s history,” says Mr Cameron after an event in Fort Mitchell, near the border with Ohio. “That’s all because of the Biden administration and the enabler that he has here in Andy Beshear.”

Mr Cameron has also sought to nationalise the race in another way. In his stump speech, he pledges to protect law enforcement from apologists for crime, the unborn from abortionists and women’s sports from biological males. Some might point out that Kentucky seems an inhospitable place for the various three-letter strains of feared progressive indoctrination—CRT, DEI and ESG. “Some of these things haven’t made it to rural areas, but we’re reading about them in the newspapers, and we know they’re coming,” says Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman who carries a homemade and self-programmed national-debt clock in his suit pocket, while at a welding training centre in Flemingsburg.

Yet Mr Beshear has managed to parry some of these attacks. Abortion is all but illegal in the state of the Kentucky, the result of a “trigger law” that went into effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in 2022, with no exceptions for rape and incest. As staunchly anti-abortion as Kentucky is, Mr Beshear has spent the later part of the campaign hammering his opponent for the stance. “My opponent lacks the basic empathy to say a nine-year-old, raped and impregnated by a family member, should have an option,” says the governor. “That’s too extreme for all of Kentucky.”

Stay on top of American politics with Checks and Balance, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter, which examines the state of American democracy and the issues that matter to voters.