Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has just won reelection in Kentucky, beating his opponent, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, in a state that voted for former President Donald Trump by 26 percentage points in 2020. Beshear’s victory, which rested on the strength of his candidacy and popularity as governor, as well as his focus on issues like abortion rights, could help provide some lessons for Democrats going into 2024.
Gubernatorial elections are notably different from federal races for Congress and the presidency, but Beshear’s success offers some takeaways for Democrats ahead of next year. For one, it shows that a quality candidate can help boost the party’s chances even in more Republican states. Additionally, it suggests that the economy and abortion rights continue to be motivating issues for many voters. Plus, it indicates that candidates in red states and swing states might have to distance themselves from President Joe Biden in order to make the necessary gains.
Below are a few ways Beshear kept Kentucky competitive for Democrats, despite the challenging fundamentals in the state.
A strong candidacy
Beshear, who is the son of a former Kentucky governor and is about to wrap up his first four-year term, was an exceptionally strong candidate.
One of the most popular governors in America, Beshear had solid approval ratings from Democrats, some Republicans, and independents. According to a Morning Consult poll conducted between July and September 2023, his overall approval rating was 60 percent, while his approval rating from Republicans was 43 percent and his approval rating from independents was 58 percent.
This support helped him face a difficult race. The state leans Republican, with registered Republicans comprising 45.8 percent of the electorate, Democrats making up 44.2 percent, and independent or third-party voters making up 10 percent, as of May 2023. In federal presidential and Senate elections, state voters have consistently voted for the Republican nominee in recent years, and the GOP has even gained ground. Beshear’s approvals from Republicans and independents, however, suggested that he could pick up some crossover voters who were willing to split their ticket.
“In Kentucky, you have a governor who is proven, who has a high approval rating, and that’s one of the biggest predictors we look at for whether a governor is going to win reelection,” said Jessica Taylor, an expert on gubernatorial elections at Cook Political Report, ahead of the election.
Much of Beshear’s support seems to stem from his successful leadership of the state both economically and during various disasters. In the course of Beshear’s tenure, Kentucky has attained one of the largest budget surpluses in its history, much of which has gone into its “rainy day fund.” The state has also attracted major external investment projects related to battery manufacturing for electric vehicles. Additionally, voters have praised Beshear’s leadership during a series of crises including the Covid-19 pandemic, when he held nightly briefings about the status of the virus in the state; a mass shooting at a Louisville bank in which one of the governor’s “closest friends” was killed; and severe flooding that required rebuilding in many parts of Kentucky.
Unlike Beshear’s prior opponent, former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who was not well-liked in the state, Cameron was relatively popular among the GOP, securing backing from both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump. That Beshear was able to defeat him and lean into his incumbency advantage shows his approach can work against a compelling Republican candidate as well.
Localized policy positions
Beshear also focused his campaign heavily on state-specific issues in an apparent bid to avoid getting bogged down by voters’ opposition to national Democrats like Biden, who has seen low approval ratings in recent months.
“You have Republicans that are absolutely nationalizing this race because that’s their best course of action,” said Taylor. “Beshear wants to keep this race focused on what he’s done for the state.”
Beshear centered much of his campaigning on the state’s low unemployment rate; a slew of business investments, including a new project from Ford; and the state relief funds that were established for communities to rebuild after devastating tornadoes and floods.
“This race is about Kentucky,” Beshear told the New York Times. “It’s about what’s going on in our houses, not about what’s going on in the White House.”
Beshear also focused on abortion rights and called out Kentucky’s near-total abortion bans. In November 2022, voters in Kentucky voted against supporting a state constitutional amendment that would ban abortion. Republicans, meanwhile, put forth attacks about Biden’s leadership and Beshear’s ties to the president, argued that Beshear is to blame for rising crime rates, and criticized his vetoing a measure that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.
Although Beshear touted infrastructure projects that were funded from legislation Biden previously championed — like pipes for clean drinking water — he’s put the focus on the benefits the state has gained, rather than where the money came from.
Big fundraising numbers and outreach
Beshear was also an effective fundraiser, another factor that bolstered his candidacy.
According to Louisville Public Media, Beshear had raised $10.5 million since winning the Democratic nomination, and Cameron had raised $3.4 million since the primaries. Additionally, Beshear and the Democratic Governors Association had collectively spent $45 million on ads, compared to Cameron and Republican groups, which had spent $27.5 million, Politico reports.
Beshear’s solid fundraising haul, along with the assists from national Democratic organizations, contributed to a significantly more contentious race.
Update, November 7, 9 pm ET: This story was originally published on November 7 and has been updated with results of the governor’s race.