DemDaily: Eyes on Kentucky

November 2, 2023

The gubernatorial race in Kentucky, where incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear is running for a second term, is being closely watched as a barometer of how red state voters are feeling on a number of issues -- most notably abortion.

A reliably Republican state in presidential elections, Kentucky hasn't voted for a Democratic nominee since it narrowly supported fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1996. Donald Trump won The Bluegrass State by a 25.9% margin in 2020, making it the reddest state in the country with a Democratic governor.

Kentuckians, however, have a history of splitting their ticket when it comes to the Governor's mansion. Beshear, who boasts a 64% approval rating, is among the most popular Democratic governors in the country. He has received national accolades for his handling of the pandemic and a series of natural disasters and tragedies in the state, leading to speculation of White House ambitions.

The son of former Governor Steve Beshear, Andy was elected Attorney General in 2015 under Republican Governor Matt Bevin, whom he subsequently unseated in 2019 by just over 5,000 votes. Beshear and Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman are Kentucky's only Democratic statewide-elected officials.

Beshear is being challenged by state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, and who swept the May 16 Republican gubernatorial primary with 47.7% -- defeating eleven other contenders.

Cameron was elected as Attorney General in 2019, becoming the state's first African-American statewide-elected official. He previously served as legal counsel to Kentucky's senior Senator, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and was reportedly on a 20-person shortlist of President Trump's potential US Supreme Court nominees.

Cameron, who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention, garnered further national attention for his controversial decision, in the fall of 2020, that Louisville Metro Police officers were "justified" in their use of force in their raid of the apartment of a woman named Breonna Taylor, which led to her death.

As AG, Cameron has repeatedly tangled with Beshear, including unsuccessful legal challenges to the Governor's COVID-19-related restrictions, and attempts to shut down abortion clinics during the pandemic and assume control over their regulation.

As the result of a 2019 law that took effect after the US Supreme Court's June 2022 reversal of federal abortion rights protections under Roe v Wade, Kentucky currently bans abortion in all cases, except when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. The state’s law does not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

Beshear has made abortion the primary focus of debates and TV ads, attacking Cameron for failing to support exemptions to Kentucky’s abortion ban for cases of rape and incest. Cameron, in turn, has called Beshear an “extremist” who “vetoed every pro-life bill he saw because Planned Parenthood and Joe Biden said so.”

The race has broken state fundraising records for a gubernatorial election, with the two candidates collectively having raised over $44 million as of the end of October. While Beshear holds a 5-to-1 fundraising advantage over Cameron in direct contributions to his campaign, the margin narrows when it comes to the more than $40 million spent by outside groups -- three-quarters of which went to TV ads in the general election.

Planned Parenthood Action Kentucky invested in a six-figure ad campaign attacking Cameron over abortion, while conservative groups Protect Freedom PAC, School Choice Fund and Club for Growth Action have spent more than $6 million combined on ads hitting Beshear on his pandemic-era restrictions, vetoes of bills targeting transgender youth and ties to President Joe Biden.

An October 18-19 survey of likely voters conducted by the co/efficient firm and funded by Republican Blue Grass Freedom PAC, show Beshear leading Cameron 47% to 45%, with 8% of voters undecided (MOE ±3.2). An October 14-16 survey of likely voters conducted by Democratic firm Hart Research for Beshear showed the Governor at 52% and Cameron at 44% (MOE ± 3.6%).

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: CNN, Courier-Journal, Louisville Public Media, Public News Service, Lexington Times, Open Secrets

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