Despite popularity, Beshear faces an uphill reelection battle

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Gov. Andy Beshear is the country’s most popular Democratic governor, according to a poll with data collected from October to December. 

While the poll shows that the governor is popular, it also reveals that the first-term governor will have a challenging time getting reelected in 2023. 

Last week, Morning Consult released a poll that shows the governor with a 60% approval rating amongst voters ahead of the 2023 Kentucky gubernatorial election. The group also released a poll in April that showed the governor with a 59% approval rating. 

“Public sentiment in Kentucky about Gov. Andy Beshear remains overwhelmingly positive as the Democrat prepares to defend his seat this year,” the report reads. 

Forty-six percent of Republicans approve of Beshear’s handling of the state. Further, 49% of independent voters and 87% of Democrats approve of the governor. 

“Despite what we know will be an unprecedented and extreme negative campaign against the historic and transformative achievements of the last three years, Gov. Beshear has the support, record, and resources to win in November,” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge. 

In his recent State of the Commonwealth address, Beshear touted his economic accomplishments, including record-low unemployment and jobs and helping bring funding for the Brent Spence Bridge

He has also navigated the state through tornadoes in Western Kentucky, flooding in Eastern Kentucky, and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Despite everything we’ve been through, including the pandemic, tornadoes, flooding, ice storms, a polar plunge, temporary, but still tough inflation, and even a war in Europe, The State of the Commonwealth is still strong,” Beshear opened. 

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However, Republicans say the economic accomplishments are due to policies set by the Republican supermajorities in the legislature. 

“I think the state’s in pretty good shape, but I don’t think it’s due to all the efforts that he took credit for,” said Senate President Robert Stivers after the Commonwealth address

Despite his popularity, Beshear will face an uphill battle in the gubernatorial election, according to the poll. Kentucky has a history of democratic governors but has voted overwhelmingly in favor of Republicans on the state and federal levels over the past two decades. 

“He flipped the seat in 2019 thanks in large part to former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s unpopularity, an advantage he will not likely have this fall as he faces a slate of potential Republican challengers, including state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, former U.S. ambassador to Canada and the United Nations Kelly Craft and Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles,” the poll reads. 

Bevin lost to Beshear by more than 5,000 votes. 

Nine other Republicans will face off in the primary in May, including State Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck. 

Bevin’s unpopularity is the only significant advantage that Beshear enjoyed, according to University of Kentucky Political Science Professor D. Stephen Voss, with Bevin carrying a lot of baggage inside and outside his party. 

“Beshear still needed to establish credibility with voters who normally do not support Democrats, a challenge made easier by his father’s brand name, but that still resulted in a very narrow victory,” Voss said, referring to Andy’s father, Steve Beshear, who was governor from 2007 to 2015. “This time, Beshear will be entering his reelection contest with all of the benefits that come from a successful run as governor.” 

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Voss noted that Beshear enjoys both high name recognition and positive approval ratings that extend beyond Democratic voters. He will also be able to continue to use his office as a means to generate positive publicity. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Beshear generated a lot of positive branding throughout Kentucky during his weekly press conferences. He stopped the pandemic pressers last spring after COVID numbers fell to safer levels, but has continued his regular Team Kentucky Updates each Thursday, where he touts the positive economic accomplishments throughout the state. 

Usually, the press conferences feature an announcement about a ribbon cutting from earlier in the day or week where the governor rode the state’s helicopter to a different part of the state for a new business ceremony.

“His Republican challenger will face the difficult task of convincing voters to gamble on a switch, even though the state made it through multiples crises on Beshear’s watch,” Voss said. 

While navigating the state through multiple crises is proving positive in the Morning Consult poll, Republicans plan to attack Beshear on how he handled the COVID-19 Pandemic — he shut down businesses and schools to slow the spread and, at one point, had state police take the license plate numbers of churchgoers who were violating quarantine efforts. 

Kentucky isn’t the only Republican state with a Democratic governor, with two of those states getting mixed results last year in the general election — Nevada and Kansas might serve as bellwethers for Kentucky’s gubernatorial future. 

In Nevada, Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak held a 50% approval rating during the last part of 2022 but lost to Republican Joe Lombardo. Kansas Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, who had a 56% approval rating ahead of her 2022 reelection bid, eked out a win over her Republican challenger. 

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Last year in Kentucky, Republican voter registrations overtook Democratic voters for the first time in history. In the Commonwealth, though, former Democratic voters leaned conservative — they were against abortion for example — and the last Democratic president to win Kentucky was Bill Clinton in 1996. 

The switch is something Republicans are banking on to help them in this year’s gubernatorial election. 

“In 2022, Kentuckians rejected Andy Beshear and the Democrat Party by flipping the voter registration advantage to Republicans and sending a record number of Republican candidates into office,” said Sean Southard, the spokesperson for the Republican Party of Kentucky. “He will most definitely have a challenging contest this fall.”

In the Kentucky statehouse, Republicans gained five House seats and one Senate seat. They now hold 80 of 100 House seats and 31 of 38 Senate seats. 

“Now it’s the Republican candidate who enters the race with only one obvious advantage, which is that more of the partisan voters in the electorate lean their way — so they do not need to persuade as many swing voters to shift their way,” Voss said. 

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