What does a Beshear win mean? Kentucky political experts weigh in.

Published 11:10 am Thursday, November 9, 2023

Tuesday night, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear coasted to a victory against Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron with 52.5% of the vote.

It was a stark difference from his 2019 win against former Gov. Matt Bevin, when the candidates were separated by about 5,000 votes. This time, Beshear widened that gap to 67,000 votes.

How did he do it? Beshear increased vote margins in Democratic urban strongholds including Louisville and Lexington, maintained support in parts of Northern Kentucky and Bowling Green and made significant gains in a broad swath of Appalachian counties.

Cameron’s support in nearly all of western and southern Kentucky wasn’t enough to fend him off.

So, what does Beshear’s win mean? Several longtime political watchers and experts spoke about the possible significance.

Appealing to Republicans

A Beshear win shows that in Kentucky, nobody should assume a voter will vote a certain way based on the letter by their name, said Robert Kahne, co-host of My Old Kentucky Podcast and a Kentucky Democratic Party State Central Executive Committee member.

“It’s a sign that Democrats can be competitive in just about any place in the country, as long as you run the right candidate and you run on the right message,” Kahne said.

Kahne pointed to Beshear’s actions during the pandemic and natural disasters, economic development and his policies toward sports gambling and medical marijuana as some of his winning positions.

“People have responded strongly to those and without those things in his first term, I think he wouldn’t stand a chance no matter how good a candidate he was,” he said.

Tres Watson, former Republican Party of Kentucky spokesperson, had a different take.

He said that a Beshear win means little beyond four years, and that his victory has more to do with his last name than anything else.

Beshear’s father, Steve Beshear, was Kentucky’s governor from 2007 to 2015.

But there isn’t any solid Democrat candidate waiting on the wings to take over from Beshear in four years, Watson said. He sees this as more of a transitional election.

“If he wins, it just speaks to the lasting power of kind of the dynasty of the Beshears, the old school Democratic politics, but it’s also the last of its kind,” he said.

He said that some older Trump voters may have voted for Beshear because they “believe at some level that Andy Beshear kept them alive during the pandemic.”

“They probably won’t talk about it in public, it won’t show up on a poll, but when they go and sit and close the curtain to vote, they may lean in that direction,” Watson said.

“I think there’s some people out there who were thankful for the compassion he showed and the time that he spent there, but at the same time, elections are about the future, not about the past.”

The incumbency advantage

Beshear’s win suggests that despite recent research, the incumbency advantage may not be dead yet, said Dr. Stephen Voss, University of Kentucky associate political science professor and specialist in elections and voting behavior.

The incumbency advantage is the competitive edge a candidate running for re-election enjoys among voters who are not usually on their party’s side.

For Beshear, it means Republicans voting for him over their party’s candidate because they approve of his track record.

But as local newsrooms have disappeared and politics becomes more nationalized, the incumbency advantage has seemingly eroded.

Voss said that Beshear benefits from a lack of major culture war topics emerging in the past several months when voters were making their decisions, which could have nationalized the race.

He’s also benefitted from state-level crises, which have given Beshear an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership.

“Beshear’s enjoyed political good fortune as a result of the state’s bad fortune, between the pandemic flooding in the east and tornadoes in the West,” Voss said.

Being an incumbent also comes with another significant advantage: the ability to raise money, said Al Cross, longtime political observer and journalist.

Beshear raised $17.3 million to Cameron’s $3.8 million during the general election cycle, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

That enabled Beshear to put together a campaign “complete on all fronts, especially voter turnout,” Cross said.

Cameron’s primary turnout device was former President Donald Trump, Cross said.

“And that is an uncertain device,” he said.

Localizing the race 

Kahne said that if Beshear won, it meant that the race wasn’t nationalized.

Cameron spent most of the campaign talking about issues important to the national Republican Party, connecting himself to Trump and Beshear to President Joe Biden, while Beshear focused on state-wide issues.

Watson said that using national talking points was what could best activate Republican leaning voters.

“You use the national issues just to remind these voters, ‘Hey, you’re a Republican,’ ” Watson said. ” ‘I know you may have an existing relationship with this family, having voted for them, but you’re a Republican and I’m the Republican nominee.’ ”

Voss said that Cameron’s loss was likely not as much about Cameron’s messaging as some pundits would like to believe.

He said that voters make decisions in two stages. The first is deciding whether they want something new.

If they are content with the status quo, that may be the end of the story. But if they are unhappy at some level, then they will enter the second stage: shopping their vote around.

“Beshear went into the election season with high job approval,” Voss said.

“He never lost that high job approval. There’s little evidence Cameron did or could have done much of anything to take the governorship away from Beshear once voters were already approving of it.”