Jan 8, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' 2023 Trump-country test

Andy Beshear

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. Photo: Joshua A. Bickel/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gov. Andy Beshear's hotly contested re-election in Kentucky is one of three red-state governor's races this year, but the only one with a Democratic incumbent.

Why it matters: Democrats say they have a playbook that's perfect for this moment, after helping Gov. Laura Kelly win in deep-red Kansas for a second time last year. But they concede that abortion might not be the X factor that it was last cycle.

The backdrop: Republicans largely shied away from talking about abortion in the 2022 midterms, which ultimately backfired and helped pro-abortion rights candidates and initiatives win around the country.

  • Kentucky voters rejected a ballot measure last November that would have changed the state's Constitution to make clear it does not protect the right to abortion, reducing the issue's salience as a campaign message.
  • Instead, the Democrats' playbook this time focuses heavily on touting bipartisan accomplishments, economic development projects (like a Ford electric battery plant Beshear secured) and speaking to conservative values like family and faith.

Driving the news: President Biden's bipartisan moment in Kentucky last week — standing alongside GOP Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell — is one that has been modeled by Beshear, Democrats say.

Be smart: The GOP's biggest asset is the state's solidly Republican electorate: Former President Trump won Kentucky with 62% of the vote in 2020.

  • That political makeup means Democrats who want to win statewide must maintain not only a sense of independence from the national party but also a clear willingness to work with Republicans.
  • A Morning Consult survey conducted last summer showed Beshear is the most popular Democratic governor in the country, with a 59% job approval rating — signaling support from Republican voters.
  • Even some on the right say Beshear is the front-runner for the general election already — unless Republicans start giving voters a reason to fire him. "He runs around pretending not to be a Democrat. Republicans have to define him before it's too late," one top Kentucky-based GOP strategist told Axios.

The big picture: Democrats have shown that gubernatorial candidates with independent brands can defy the odds in Trump country.

  • They're drawing on lessons learned from Kelly in Kansas and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro in 2022; North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper in 2020; and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019 to try to keep Beshear in Kentucky.
  • Beshear's state of the Commonwealth address this week focused on teacher pay raises while also pushing to legalize sports betting and medical marijuana.
  • His first term has been dominated by several crises (difficult to make partisan), including the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating flooding and tornadoes that slammed local communities.

The other side: Republicans are facing a contested primary among three candidates: former President Trump's U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft, agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles and Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

  • Cameron, the only Black Republican state attorney general, is considered a rising GOP star and won Trump's endorsement early on before returning the favor and backing Trump's 2024 bid.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has close relationships with the GOP candidates but isn't expected to endorse in the primary.
  • Craft, who Trump appointed as ambassador, has substantial personal wealth and is already spending money on campaign advertising. And Quarles' farming background is a political asset in a state with a sizable rural electorate.
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