Even before the dust settled on the primary elections, the general election contest for governor swung into full gear as the incumbent, Democrat Andy Beshear, launched his first campaign commercial and embarked on a statewide bus tour.
“He could’ve easily set back on his laurels, enjoyed his 91 percent primary victory... and just waited for the campaign to develop,” says state Rep. Chad Aull (D-Lexington). “But he was proactive, he got out there, and he had record crowds at these events.”
At his rallies and in his ads, Beshear touts the record economic growth Kentucky has enjoyed during his first term, including 46,000 new jobs and landing a massive electric vehicle battery plant near Glendale, all while leading the state through the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple natural disasters.
“Gov. Andy Beshear is the economic driver in Kentucky,” says Democratic strategist Morgan Eaves. “He is the one who brought almost a $6 billion investment from Ford – the largest investment in Ford’s history – right here to Kentucky.”
But supporters of GOP nominee Daniel Cameron, the sitting state Attorney General, argue it’s Republican policies, from cutting taxes to eliminating right to work laws, that are driving the state’s economy, not any actions of the Democratic governor. State Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville) says the irony is Beshear vetoed the state income tax cut the legislature passed in 2022, as well as fiscally responsible state budgets crafted by Republican leadership.
“Not only is he trying to take credit for something he didn’t do. It’s worse,” says Nemes. “He’s trying to take credit for something that he actively opposed.”
As for job growth, Nemes says there are 25,000 fewer Kentuckians working today than when Beshear took office in 2019. Republican strategist Julia Bright Crigler says it will be up to the GOP supermajorities in the General Assembly to overcome Kentucky’s low workforce participation rate in order to fill all the new jobs scheduled to come to the commonwealth.
“Who’s going to be fielding all these jobs?” says Crigler. “It’s not going to be our workforce. Our workforce never went back to work after COVID.”
Pandemic Closures and Crime Rates
The governor’s actions during the global pandemic will be a significant GOP talking point in the months ahead. Nemes says Beshear kept schools closed too long, allowed some businesses to stay open while he forced others to shutter, violated his own orders on masking, threatened people with jail time for attending Easter church services, and failed to address botched unemployment benefit payments.
“This governor, if I were him, I’d run away from COVID as far as I can because I think that’s our strongest argument,” says Nemes. “The governor went too far on COVID. It’s just that simple.”
Democrats say Beshear led the commonwealth through challenges no other governor has experienced. Eaves, who worked with the governor during the first year of his administration, says Beshear understood the economic and political risks of his pandemic measures but still pursued them in order to save lives.
“He acknowledged that the decisions he was making were going to be something that his political enemies were going to come after him for in the future,” says Eaves. “To Monday morning quarterback and say that it was too harsh I think really does a disservice to the 18,600 Kentuckians that were lost to COVID. That number could have been a lot higher if Gov. Beshear didn’t take the measures he did.”
Republicans also contend Beshear has failed to reduce violent crime in rural areas and in the state’s largest cities. Nemes points to how 124 youth in Jefferson County were shot in 2021, yet he says Beshear has done nothing to address the issue of gun violence.
In contrast, Nemes says Cameron has backed smart-on-crime legislation, cracked down on human trafficking, and wants to create a Kentucky State Police post in Louisville to support metro police department efforts.
Beshear downplayed that idea, saying it would take troopers away from rural areas that are already underserved by law enforcement. But Nemes contends desperate times demand a governor to take desperate measures.
“When we’ve got hundreds of our kids shooting each other and dozens of them dying every year, you send [KSP officers] from Harlan, you send them from Paducah, you send them from Pikeville, you send them from E-town,” says Nemes. “Declare an emergency, which is what it is, and help Louisville.”
Aull says there’s little a sitting governor can do to address local crime rates. But he says Beshear has worked to bolster the ranks of KSP officers.
“The governor advocated for and got in one of the last budgets a $15,000 raise for the state police,” says Aull. “That’s helped with recruiting new state police officers and work on retaining state police officers to help in rural Kentucky.”
Education policy, school funding, and teacher pay are also likely to be significant issues in the gubernatorial race. The GOP primary candidates criticized Beshear for keeping schools closed too long during COVID, and they targeted Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass for supporting what they call “woke” social policies over academic achievement.
Nemes says Cameron supports school choice, parental rights, and keeping students in classrooms.
“Daniel Cameron is not going to be the governor for the teachers’ unions,” says Nemes. “Daniel Cameron is going to be the governor for the classroom teacher and the parent.”
Aull says teachers helped Beshear win in 2019 and will be there for him again this November. Eaves says educators know where the Democrat stands on education issues, but not the Republican nominee.
“We have not heard any education policy specifics from Daniel Cameron,” says Eaves, “so I would love to know how he’s going to be governor for the classroom teacher.”
A big question that lies ahead for Cameron is the selection of a running mate. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who placed second in the GOP primary for governor, has been mentioned. Nemes says a fellow Republican legislator from Louisville, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, would also be an excellent choice for lieutenant governor. Cameron has until Aug. 8 to select a running mate.
Other races for statewide office this fall will pose some interesting matchups for voters.
The race to succeed Daniel Cameron as Attorney General features Republican Russell Coleman and Democrat Pamela Stevenson.
Coleman is a former senior advisor and legal counsel to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. He also served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky during the administration of former President Donald Trump.
“There’s not anybody in this state more tailor-made for the role of attorney general than Russell Coleman,” says Crigler. “He has proved himself to be a man of integrity.”
Stevenson is a state representative from Louisville and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served in the service’s judge advocate general corps for more than two decades. Stevenson now runs a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to veterans and their families.
“That’s a different set of skills because you really are serving the underserved,” says Eaves. “As opposed to more white-collar crimes maybe that are happening in federal district court, you’re really lifting up the most basic Kentuckians.”
For Secretary of State, incumbent Republican Michael Adams faces attorney, retired firefighter, and former Democratic state Rep. Buddy Wheatley. Eaves says Wheatley wants to expand the early voting period to two weeks and keep polls open until 7 p.m. on election day. Nemes says Adams, during his first term in office, made it easier for Kentuckians to vote, but harder to cheat. He contends the changes Wheatley proposes are dangerous and too expensive.
Current state Treasurer Allison Ball is the Republican nominee for Auditor. She will face tax attorney Kim Reeder.
The race for Commissioner of Agriculture pits former Republican state Rep. Jonathan Shell against Democrat Sierra Enlow, a political newcomer and economic development consultant.
And the race for Treasurer will see Democrat Michael Bowman, a veteran of Louisville Metro Government and the Beshear Administration, face off against Garrard County Attorney Mark Metcalfe.