Ahead of today’s voting, KET’s Renee Shaw spoke with four political operatives about their views on the statewide contests on the ballot this year. Her guests were Democrats Will Carle of Opine Strategies and Kelsey Hayes Coots of Blue Dot Consulting, and Republicans Rebecca Hartsough of Babbage Cofounder and Tres Watson of Capitol Reins PR.
A Late Surge for Cameron
The Republican and Democratic panelists agree that GOP gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron has surged in recent weeks. Watson says that’s thanks to strong policy positions and a new endorsement video from former President Donald Trump. But the question is will that be enough to defeat the Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear, who has led in polling since the primary.
“He’s really come into his own the last couple of weeks, his message has been honed, it’s a lot more focused,” Watson says of Cameron. “I think he’s poised for a good election night.”
Coots says Kentuckians respect Beshear as a person and as a leader even if they don’t always agree with his policy positions on COVID pandemic restrictions or other issues. She says the Democrat always has people’s best interests at heart when it comes to making hard choices.
“He has been running for something throughout this entire election instead of against (President Joe Biden) and I think that has really resonated with voters,” says Coots of Beshear. “They know who he is as a person not just as a politician.”
Cameron even made Beshear’s likability a feature of a recent campaign ad, which Watson contends allows undecided voters to say they like the Democrat but will still vote for change in the governor’s office. Coots says that ad was a last-ditch attempt by Cameron to find a message that would connect with Kentucky voters who are uncertain about the Republican’s policy positions.
This will be the first gubernatorial election in Kentucky in which GOP voter registrations outnumber those of Democrats. That could be crucial since Beshear won in 2019 by defeating the Republican incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019 by only 5,000 votes. Hartsough describes Bevin as a flawed candidate running in a race that was his to lose.
“And he lost it,” she says.
Watson say Cameron has fewer flaws than Bevin and a more disciplined message, which should give the Republican the victory in a deeply red commonwealth. Carle acknowledges that GOP voters are coalescing around Cameron, but he contends there are still enough Republicans who will cross party lines to give Beshear a second term.
Another difference between the 2019 and 2023 races is that there is no third-party candidate on this year’s ballot. In 2019, Libertarian John Hicks garnered more than 28,000 votes. Carle says those voters will go for Beshear because the Democrat will fight to protect civil liberties from Republican overreach.
“When Democrats talk about big government, we want to expand programs so that we’re lifting people up,” says Carle. “When they talk about big government programs, it’s to bring you down and to control you.”
Watson says Libertarians will vote against the governor for sending state troopers to monitor church parking lots during the early months of the pandemic.
Counties and Regions to Watch
Hartsough says five bellwether counties have accurately voted for governor since 1999: Campbell and Kenton Counties in northern Kentucky, Madison and Scott Counties in central Kentucky, and Warren County in western Kentucky. She says Beshear won each of those counties in 2019, but she says early voting in those counties this year shows a greater turnout of people who registered Republican.
Watson says Republicans lost traditional GOP strongholds in northern Kentucky in 2019 because Bevin called for tolls to pay for a new Ohio River bridge to Cincinnati. But he says those counties will come out for Cameron this year. Carle says that may not happen since Beshear helped secure federal funding to build a Brent Spence Bridge replacement without the need for tolls.
Watson says Cameron must also regain other key counties that Bevin lost elsewhere in the state, including Scott, Warren and Daviess.
On the Democratic side, Carle says Beshear must accrue a 100,000-vote margin in Jefferson County to secure reelection. Watson says he’ll watch to see if Cameron can win enough votes in neighboring Oldham, Shelby, and Spencer Counties to offset any deficit he has in Jefferson County.
Beshear has also made regional ad buys that tout his efforts to help western Kentucky communities rebuild after the December 2021 tornado outbreak and eastern Kentucky recover from devastating floods in July 2022. Carle says Beshear doesn’t have to flip any of those counties, he just has to reduce Cameron’s margins there. Coots says Beshear’s disaster relief efforts have shown him to be a nonpartisan governor for all Kentuckians.
“People do see him as a leader and somebody that has helped shepherd them through these difficult times,” says Coots. “He has had to lead in these instances where red and blue don’t matter and people are just trying to rebuild their lives.”
Watson says former President Donald Trump’s popularity in western Kentucky will counter any potential gains Beshear may earn from his response to the tornadoes there. Hartsough says Cameron will get another boost in western Kentucky from his running mate, state Sen. Robby Mills, who hails from Henderson. She says voting in rural eastern and western communities will also be shaped by commercials that Democrats have run that criticize the state’s abortion law.
“The abortion ads are certainly, I think, turning out voters in maybe more of your urban counties for Beshear,” says Hartsough. “But they’re also doing the opposite in terms of the rural counties in a lot of ways as they’re turning out some voters there that... are coming out to vote in a pro-life way... against Andy Beshear.”
In the race for Attorney General, former U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman, the Republican, faces state Rep. Pamela Stevenson, a Louisville Democrat. Watson says Coleman is made-to-order for the job of attorney general. Carle points to Stevenson’s decades of experience as a lawyer in the U.S. Air Force.
But Stevenson has been dogged by the fact that she is not specifically licensed to practice law in Kentucky, although that is not a requirement to be attorney general. Ads attacking the Republican have spotlighted criticism Coleman received from judges for lenient plea agreements he approved.
Coots contends the commercials attacking Stevenson show that she is making a late surge in the race. But Watson says those ads are simply a response to the ads attacking Coleman.
A campaign spot has played an interesting role in the race for Secretary of State. Republican incumbent Michael Adams has a commercial that touts his work with Gov. Beshear on pandemic-era voting reforms. Hartsough says it’s only natural that Adams would want to promote how he made it easier for Kentuckians to vote.
Carle says Adams is an astute politician who knows who is favored to win the governor’s race and therefore wants to be associated with the Democratic incumbent. But Carle adds that he hopes Buddy Wheately, a former state representative and Democratic nominee for Secretary of State, will win that race.
Two eastern Kentucky women are headlining the race for state Auditor. Democrat Kim Reader is a political newcomer who has extensive national experience as a tax attorney. Coots says Reeder will be accountable to Kentuckians and not a rubber stamp for the Republican-dominated legislature.
Current Treasurer Allison Ball is the Republican nominee for auditor. Hartsough says Ball was the only statewide candidate to get more than 60 percent of the vote in 2019. She says that popularity should make Ball an easy winner again this year.
The race for Treasurer pits Republican Mark Metcalf, a county attorney from Lancaster, against Democrat Michael Bowman, a former bank manager with experience in state and local government. Watson says Kentucky’s Republican majority will carry Metcalf to victory. But Coots says Bowman has outraised Metcalf in recent campaign finance reports. Plus, she says Bowman, if elected, would be the first state Treasurer in four decades to have actual financial experience.
Finally, the race for Commissioner of Agriculture features Democrat Sierra Enlow and Republican Jonathan Shell. Hartsough says Shell has good name recognition from his days as state House majority floor leader and as a recruiter of Republican legislative candidates across the commonwealth. Carle says Enlow is the better-qualified candidate given her farming background, economic development experience, and strong policy platform.
Renee Shaw will have live election results starting at 7 p.m. on KET. The coverage will also feature analysis by Al Cross, Bob Babbage, Trey Grayson, Kelsey Hayes Coots, and Amy Wickliffe.