Over at Sabato's Crystal Ball, J. Miles Coleman handicaps the 2023 Kentucky Gubernatorial race.
Of the 3 states seeing governors races this year, Kentucky will likely see the most vigorous 2-party competition. Four years ago, Kentucky voters ousted an unpopular governor from a popular party. This year, the Bluegrass State will weigh whether to keep a popular governor from an unpopular party.
In 2019, then-state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) narrowly beat then-incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin (R). Bevin was originally elected in 2015 to replace Beshear’s father, who was term-limited as governor. Bevin, an anti-establishment conservative, burnt a few too many bridges during his term and, despite the state’s friendly lean, was weighed down by poor approval ratings.
Now, facing reelection himself, Beshear is in essentially the opposite situation as Bevin was 4 years ago. According to Morning Consult’s April 2022 polling, Beshear was the most popular Democratic governor in the country. In Morning Consult’s more recent October 2022 poll, he retained that title. But Kentucky is also the reddest state (by 2020 presidential results) that currently has a Democratic governor — so, as impressive as Beshear’s approvals are, they are not necessarily enough to guarantee reelection.
On Friday, filing for the gubernatorial contest closed. On the Republican side, about a dozen candidates, including 3 current statewide officials, filed to run in the May 16 primary. Though Kentucky has the earliest primary of the 3 states that will elect governors this year — in other words, Republicans won’t be beating up on each other into the fall, as has been the case in recent Louisiana races (more on that later) — state GOP consultant Scott Jennings quipped that “crazy things” could happen.
Still, the nominal frontrunner in the Republican contest is Daniel Cameron, who currently holds Beshear’s old job as state Attorney General. Cameron, a Black Republican who is 37 and has connections to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), first ran for office in 2019 — he easily defeated then-state Rep. Greg Stumbo, an Appalachian Democrat who had a lengthy resume in state politics. As Beshear did with Bevin, Cameron has battled the governor while in office, most notably on COVID measures. Shortly after Cameron entered the race, last May, he received Donald Trump’s endorsement.
The other statewide Republicans who are running for a promotion are Auditor Mike Harmon and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Harmon first got to office in something of an upset, defeating then-Auditor Adam Edelen, who was thought to be a rising star in state Democratic politics (Edelen later lost to Beshear in the 2019 gubernatorial primary). Quarles has fundraised competitively with Cameron, while Harmon’s totals have been less impressive. Kelly Knight Craft, who served in the Trump Administration as ambassador to Canada and then to the United Nations, is another serious Republican. Craft is both a billionaire and an ample fundraiser, so money should not be an issue for her campaign.
Beshear, although he is expected to win his primary easily, will have 2 opponents, the more notable of whom is Geoff Young. A perennial candidate, Young has been denounced by fellow Democrats for, among other things, his pro-Vladimir Putin stances. In any case, the non-Beshear vote in the primary will likely be a protest vote more than anything else.
Aside from the potential for a chaotic Republican primary, there are more local factors working in Beshear’s favor. In 2017, the Crystal Ball looked at the types of political implications that natural disasters can have. Governors who are perceived to handle disasters well often get an electoral boost. Last year, though he was already favored, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R-FL) response to Hurricane Ian likely padded his margin. Since 2019, Kentucky has been hit by tornadoes in the west, while the Appalachian east has seen historic flooding. Beshear’s responses to the state’s crises have enabled him to cultivate something of a postpartisan image.
The 2022 election cycle, at least in terms of its partisan results, was not especially kind to Kentucky Democrats: though they retained representation in the federal delegation by holding the open and very Democratic Louisville-based KY-3, Republicans expanded their already-robust majority in the state House — the GOP captured 80 of the chamber’s 100 seats. But the result of one of last year’s state referendums may give Democrats more encouragement. Amendment 2 was supported by many prominent Republicans — if passed, it would have confirmed that the state constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion. Amendment 2 failed by close to 5 points.
Though the status of abortion in Kentucky is being settled in the courts, from a purely electoral perspective, the anti-Amendment 2 vote may provide something of a template for a Beshear win this year. The state’s 2 largest counties, Louisville’s Jefferson and Lexington’s Fayette, both voted over 70% against the amendment — in 2019, Beshear himself received about two-thirds of the vote in each of those large counties. (Those are the pockets of dark blue on the map.) The 3 northernmost counties, which are in Cincinnati’s orbit, also voted, in aggregate, against Amendment 2. Beshear’s overperformance in northern Kentucky was key to his 2 previous statewide wins. It is hard to transfer every element of a referendum to an actual partisan contest, but a similar vote in Kansas last summer presaged Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D-KS) victory in another red state.
Considering the governor’s personal popularity and the potential for uncertainty in the Republican primary, we are starting Beshear off as a slight favorite and calling the Kentucky contest Leans Democratic.
People like Andy Beshear, but he's going to get drilled in campaign ads over the next 11 months and the GOP is not going to let up. Cameron is Mitch McConnell's personal pick to succeed him, and winning the governor's mansion in 2023 and then running for Mitch's seat in 2026 is the plan.
We'll see. I think Beshear can win, but he absolutely is going to be the number one national target this year for the GOP. Mitch will see to that.