Ahead of Kentucky Tonight’s conversation with the candidates for governor on Nov. 23, Renee Shaw spoke with four political operatives about this year’s elections and some trends they see heading into the final weeks.
Andy Beshear, the Democratic incumbent for governor, and Republican challenger Daniel Cameron, the attorney general of Kentucky, debated on Monday at Northern Kentucky University. GOP strategist Amy Wickliffe says that meeting and the other forthcoming debates give people around the state an opportunity to hear the candidates discuss regional issues. She says voters can also see if the policy positions of Cameron and Beshear evolve as Election Day nears.
Recent polling in the race gives Beshear a lead of between six and 16 points. Democratic strategist Stuart Perelmuter credits that advantage to strong economic growth, infrastructure investments, and the governor’s bipartisan leadership through the COVID pandemic and multiple natural disasters.
“What’s interesting about the polls that I have seen is that you see this appreciation for Gov. Beshear even as they’re saying, ‘We also really like Donald Trump and we also think the (2020 presidential) election was stolen,’” says Perelmuter, “To me what that’s saying is Andy Beshear has always governed without partisanship in mind. He governs for the people of Kentucky, not the party.”
Republicans contend that Beshear is riding an economic wave that GOP legislators fostered with tax cuts and pro-business policies they passed. But even many Republicans have given Beshear good marks, and Wickliffe acknowledges that some of them may vote for the governor over Cameron.
“It’s clear that Andy Beshear knew that he had to go after, in a very strategic way, the Republican vote,” says Wickliffe. “This is the first gubernatorial election we have had where Republican registration outnumbers Democrat, so that is a difference in this election cycle, and it’s no secret that he was going to have to go out and really try to gin-up some Republican support.”
For his part, Cameron has sought to redefine Beshear’s tenure with attacks on the governor’s pandemic closures, education policies, and stances on abortion and other social issues. Republican attorney Anne-Tyler Morgan says Cameron has stepped ahead of GOP lawmakers by saying he wants to phase out the state’s income tax during his first term if elected. Morgan says that schedule is significantly faster than the one enacted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly, which would take to at least 2032 to cut the income tax to zero.
Wickliffe says Cameron has pledged to work with budget chairs in the state Senate and House of Representatives to devise the best tax cut strategy for the commonwealth.
“He’s not going to unilaterally just go in and make those decisions,” says Wickliffe. “He is going to be collaborative and work with the General Assembly, something we technically have not really seen the governor do with this particular General Assembly.”
Democratic strategist Sherman Brown says the chasm between the governor and the legislature is blown out of proportion. He says GOP legislators also complained that former Gov. Matt Bevin, a fellow Republican, wouldn’t work with them either. Perelmuter says people do want their elected officials get along, but he argues Beshear has been busy trying to overcome the Republican-driven laws on abortion and LGBTQ individuals, which Perelmuter contends are extreme and hamper corporate investments.
The Fight for the Education Vote
On education, Cameron contends the learning losses Kentucky children experienced over the last three years are the result of the governor closing schools during the pandemic.
“What’s interesting about some of the COVID discussion in the campaign has been how Cameron has used it to form his education plan, his comeback plan, and how he has made education more of a Republican issue again,” says Morgan. “Now both candidates are talking about how they help public schools and public teachers.”
In August, Cameron apologized to a group of public school administrators, saying he was sorry for any disrespect they felt from him or fellow Republicans. Morgan says Cameron has since worked to prove to Kentuckians that he stands with public schools and teachers.
Perelmuter contends Cameron’s rhetoric on public education is at odds with his support for school choice and scholarship tax credits.
“I’ve seen his plans, and his plans are to funnel money out of the public school system,” says Perelmuter. “So it’s great to talk about [public education], I like that he’s saying those things, but his plans would do the opposite and it’s really concerning.”
“Democrats like to say that you’re funneling money out of public education,” counters Wickliffe. “We’re really talking about giving parents the opportunity to make choices about what is the best education path for their children.”
Republican campaign ads have sought to nationalize the governor’s race by tying Beshear to President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat. Morgan says the president’s low approval ratings have continued to slip in the commonwealth, going from 34 percent in August to 26 percent in early October. On the stump, Cameron frequently ties Beshear to President Biden and his policies.
“Daniel Cameron should absolutely be using that strategy because Kentucky overwhelmingly disfavors Joe Biden,” says Morgan.
But that may not be an effective tactic against a popular incumbent like Beshear, according to Perelmuter.
“Kentucky knows Andy Beshear, they know his record,” he says. “People have a relationship with Andy Beshear and so I just don’t see the needle moving on that.”
What to Watch for on Election Night
Once the vote tallies begin to arrive on Nov. 7, Morgan says she will watch the numbers from Campbell, Kenton, and Boone Counties in northern Kentucky. She says turnout was nearly equal between Democrats and Republicans in Boone County in the 2019 elections, so she says any of those counties could help turn the gubernatorial race this year.
In addition to northern Kentucky, Wickliffe says she will monitor the state’s two most populous counties, Jefferson and Fayette, as well as Warren and Madison Counties. Wickliffe and Morgan say Jefferson County could prove interesting, thanks to significant GOP gains in suburban parts of Metro Louisville. The two Republicans also say they expect strong turnout in rural Kentucky, where they contend crime and the economy are important issues. The state averaged just over 44 percent turnout in the 2019 elections.
Brown points out that former Gov. Bevin received more votes for his reelection campaign in 2019 than he got in 2015, yet Andy Beshear still managed to beat the incumbent. Brown says the Beshear campaign is on track to knock on more than a million doors in the state this year.
As for election turnout, Brown says he’s tracking western and northern Kentucky. He says Democrats haven’t won those regions lately but that the trend could change. He also points to new ads from Beshear that tout the governor’s efforts to help people in western Kentucky rebuild from the December 2021 tornados and eastern Kentuckians recover from the July 2022 flooding. He says those messages have an emotional resonance for voters in those regions.
“They remember how they felt when he was there and showed up and was literally hugging them, telling them it’s going to be ok and that he wasn’t leaving them,” says Brown. “And he hasn’t left them.”
As for down-ballot races, Wickliffe says she’s watching how well current Treasurer Allison Ball does in her campaign for state auditor. She says Ball, a Republican, was the top vote-getter among all the candidates for statewide office in the 2019 general election and in this year’s primaries. Ball faces Democratic newcomer Kim Reeder of Morehead.
The pundits are also watching the race for attorney general where Republican Russell Coleman faces Democratic state Rep. Pamela Stevenson. In addition to being a former U.S. Attorney and former FBI agent, Coleman also is a prolific fundraiser, according to Wickliffe. She says the Republican has $800,000 on hand to spend in the final weeks.
Brown says he expects the national Democratic Attorneys General Association to invest in ads for Stevenson to make her more competitive. But Republicans have criticized Stevenson for not being licensed to practice law in the commonwealth.
Perelmuter says that’s a non-issue because attorney generals in Kentucky aren’t required to be licensed to practice here. He says Stevenson, who is licensed in Indiana, has reciprocity to practice in Kentucky. He also says that as a retired U.S. Air Force attorney with more than two decades of experience, Stevenson is more qualified for the job of attorney general than Daniel Cameron was. Perelmuter also contends that Coleman has been inconsistent on the abortion issue, saying the Republican has supported a ban without exceptions while also saying that there should be exceptions for cases of rape and incest.
“He’s not the first politician to distance himself from his own position when he finds out that it’s incredibly unpopular,” says Perelmuter. “He’s changed his rhetoric, but he has a very clear track record that he’s done nothing to reverse.”