Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is entering his reelection contest in a rare position for a red state Democrat: the frontrunner.
It is a remarkable chain of events for Beshear, the son of a popular former governor who upset then-Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by just 5,000 votes in 2019. Beshear is riding into his reelection bid with sky high popularity, not just for a Democratic governor in a state that Donald Trump carried by nearly 26 points in 2020, but for any governor generally.
Republicans believe Beshear is beatable, but they admit it will be tough.
“I think he’s the favorite,” said Scott Jennings, a prominent Republican consultant in Kentucky. “Do I think he can be beaten? Yeah, I do. But I think it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to take a while.”
Beshear will have all the advantages generally granted to incumbent governors: the power of the bully pulpit, sky high name ID and approval, and a deep warchest — as of the end of last year, he had over $4.7 million in the bank. A late January survey from Mason-Dixon Polling found that 61 percent of voters in the state approved of the job he was doing, and he had notable leads over potential challengers.
Beshear has hosted regular “Team Kentucky” updates and has been ever-present for Kentuckians, who during his tenure in office have navigated the coronavirus pandemic and a string of natural disasters.
And Democrats in the state point to a boom of economic growth during his tenure in office. A page on Beshear’s official website brags about delivering “the highest and second-highest revenue surpluses in the history of Kentucky, thanks to strong fiscal management and a hot, record-breaking economy,” which is anticipated to be a major theme in his campaign.
Beshear is trying to follow the playbook of a handful of other recent successful Democratic governors in red states, who were able to secure reelection by casting themselves as competent, good-government-minded bureaucrats focused on fixing kitchen-table problems. They also look to avoid national politics — Beshear said in an interview with the Associated Press in December that President Joe Biden likely wouldn’t be appearing on the trail with him — and hot-button culture war issues.
“I think the through line there is you have a popular Democratic governor who’s managed the economy well, and has the economy roaring. Those are difficult to beat,” said Eric Hyers, who is managing Beshear’s campaign. Hyers pointed to the success of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly — who won reelection last year — and former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who won in 2012 and 2016 and whose campaign he previously ran.
Republicans are expected to spend heavily to try to bring Beshear back to earth. But first the party must land on a nominee, with a major pileup of candidates vying in a May 16 primary for the right to face Beshear.
The Republican field is taking shape
There are a dozen Republicans running, but many in the state generally think three candidates have a shot at the nomination: state Attorney General Daniel Cameron; Ryan Quarles, the state agricultural commissioner; and Kelly Craft, who was Trump’s second (and final) United Nations ambassador.
A protégé of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Cameron first won statewide office in 2019, succeeding Beshear as attorney general. He has been widely viewed as a rising star in the state and nationally and is generally viewed as the early frontrunner to win the Republican nomination.
He also scored an early endorsement from Trump in the contest, who got behind his bid last summer. No other potential 2024 hopeful has weighed in to the primary yet, and it is unclear if they would do so before the general election, which could potentially turn the race into a messy proxy battle.
Quarles is a former state lawmaker who has been serving as the state’s agricultural commissioner since 2016. His campaign launched with a long list of local endorsees in the counties, and would likely rely on that bench of support to try to carve a path to the nomination.
Craft, a longtime GOP activist and donor who is married to the coal billionaire Joe Craft, is the biggest x-factor in the race. Despite her role in the Trump administration, she was almost entirely unknown across Kentucky before she launched her run. To solve that, she has barraged Kentucky airwaves with advertising — already spending at least $1.4 million, according to data from the advertising tracking firm AdImpact, with hundreds of thousands more already booked and almost assuredly much more on the way.
“Two months ago nobody knew who we were, and we were able to go on TV” and change that, said Kristin Davison, a senior adviser to the Craft campaign.
That Mason-Dixon poll from January showed Cameron with a yawning lead in the GOP contest. He was at 39 percent, to 13 percent for Craft, 8 percent for Quarles and 5 percent for state Auditor Mike Harmon, with the rest of the field not breaking two percent. Republicans in the state say the race has likely shifted since then, given that Craft has had the airwaves to herself over the last month, and still has room to move as the primary heats up.
Some of Craft’s ads have looked to nationalize the race. Her most recent ad was about standing up to China and made a passing mention to the spy balloon that captivated the country earlier this year, while the one before that had Craft saying “Joe Biden and Andy Beshear are ignoring the border crisis” while standing at the country’s Southern border.
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The Republican Governors Association plans on continuing its policy of neutrality in primaries and does not intend to get involved in the race.
But other outside groups are. On Monday, an organization called Commonwealth PAC — which identified itself in state paperwork as being pro-Craft — launched new ads, the first major outside spending of the race. The spots attack Cameron as “nice, but he’s no strong Kentucky conservative,” using a stretched metaphor of a grizzly bear.
A handful of the candidates met for the first debate of the primary on Tuesday. Cameron, Quarles, Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck met on stage for a debate hosted by the Jefferson County Republican Party and Spectrum News. Craft declined to participate in this debate, citing a travel conflict. But she has committed to participate in at least two future debates. A mid-April debate is planned with the four candidates who appeared on stage on Tuesday and Craft, moderated by Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones, who floated a 2020 Senate run — as a Democrat — before deciding against it.
But regardless of who emerges with the nomination, Republicans are feeling bullish about challenging Beshear despite his overall popularity in the state. Several pointed to the fact that Republicans passed Democrats in voter registration over last summer — the end of a years-long inevitability in the state as ancestral Democrats abandoned the party in everything but registration — as a strong sign for their prospects, and they argued that even center-right voters who personally like Beshear would come home to the GOP in November.
Part of the calculus, Republicans say, is that they don’t anticipate any of the three leading candidates for the nomination to be anywhere near as polarizing as Bevin.
The former governor, who teased a comeback bid before bailing on filing day, was a deeply unpopular governor during his tenure in office. He was a caustic proto-Trump in the state who relished lobbing bombs at any given opportunity.
“I think all three of our candidates would be well liked by Republicans and would be more than acceptable to the center-right independents, who obviously gravitated away from Bevin toward Beshear,” said Jennings, the GOP consultant.
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