Supporters of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron cheer outside KET’s studio as the candidates arrive for their Oct. 23 debate. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Matthew Mueller)
LEXINGTON — Kentucky’s gubernatorial candidates — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron — further differentiated themselves on topics like education, abortion and the coronavirus pandemic in their fourth debate at KET’s Lexington studios Monday evening.
During the debate, both candidates pressed the other on their campaign talking points, while touting their own plans for the governor’s office over the next four years.
As they have in previous debates, Beshear painted himself as a leader who saw Kentuckians through hard times — the pandemic and natural disasters — and wants to continue to build on his administration’s economic accomplishments, while Cameron said he would work with the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly on legislation, such as implementing his public safety plan.
Beshear opened first and was asked how he could effectively govern the state despite tensions in his relationship with the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly. He referred to his term to date, saying he has signed more than 600 bipartisan bills into law.
“We work well behind the scenes. It’s just in politics what happens out front is often not what you see behind closed doors,” the governor said.
In his opening comments, Cameron said the state’s economy is not “on fire,” as Beshear often says, pointing to inflation affecting Kentuckians.
“It’s unbelievable, dare I say crazy, that you’d have a governor who would endorse the policies and the president (Joe Biden) who have created this mess that we’re in, whether it be your inflation, whether it be median household income, those are all because of a president that this governor has endorsed,” Cameron said, referring to Beshear’s comments in a Lexington Herald-Leader editorial board interview.
As for how Cameron would navigate possible conflicts with the General Assembly, he said he was “willing to do whatever is necessary” for Kentuckians, “but I think most people would agree that it’s better to have everyone rowing in the same direction.”
Cameron, who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was asked during the debate if he agreed with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell that Trump was responsible for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Cameron also has close ties to McConnell, including previously serving as legal counsel to the longtime leader of the Kentucky Republican Party.
“President Trump is such a big deal in this race that Andy Beshear ran in a campaign ad nearly two weeks ago trying to tout that there was some relationship between him and Donald Trump,” Cameron said after reaffirming that he was “proud” to have Trump’s support while not discussing the Capitol attack.
In response, Beshear said he was running that ad “because people should be able to vote for whoever they want” and again decried the partisanship and divisiveness that he has accused Cameron of promoting.
After the debate, reporters asked Cameron if he would welcome a campaign visit by Trump and if Trump deserves to be returned to the White House. Days before the primary election, Trump and Cameron spoke together in a brief tele-rally to callers.
“I think it was better than what we have under Joe Biden,” Cameron said in response.
Cameron said that “living under Bidennomics,” the cost of groceries, gasoline and utility bills has gone up.
“I think most people would agree that when President Trump was in office, they had more money in their pocket,” Cameron continued. “They had more savings in their savings account. And I think we want to get back to that.”
Beshear left without speaking to reporters.
On the campaign trail, Cameron has long been critical of Beshear’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which killed more than 19,000 Kentuckians. During Monday’s debate, the attorney general said he would have prioritized the constitutional rights of Kentuckians amid the pandemic.
Cameron blamed student learning loss on schools closing for in-person learning and moving to online and said Beshear’s “short-sighted decisions” impacted Kentuckians, including business owners.
Around Easter 2020, then-President Donald Trump wanted to relax guidelines for social distancing and other precautions but heeded advice of health experts to continue them through July 2020. When asked if he would have followed those guidelines, Cameron turned back to constitutional rights and criticized Beshear’s decisions.
“There’s something called leadership, and I would have offered leadership to the people here in Kentucky and I would have made sure that we stood up for your constitutional rights,” Cameron said.
When asked if he had any regrets about his response to the pandemic, such as sending state troopers to check license plates at churches on Easter Sunday, Beshear said those choices were “battlefield decisions.”
“This is about leadership,” the governor said. “And I showed people during the pandemic I was willing to make the hard decisions, even if it cost me. I put politics out the window and I made the best decisions I could to save as many lives as possible.”
When asked if he believed his administration was not adequately addressing students’ learning loss from the pandemic, Beshear said academic declines began before the pandemic and are connected to not having enough educators.
“We proposed significant raises for our teachers to make sure there was a teacher in each classroom,” Beshear said of his past budget proposals. “We proposed extra learning resources in terms of textbooks and technology. And I even said at the time that we ought to be using those dollars to address any challenges that were coming out of the pandemic.”
A prominent part of Cameron’s education plan includes funding a 16-week tutoring program for math and reading instruction to take place during summer breaks. During the debate, he said the model was similar to plans found in Tennessee and Utah.
“We’re going to pay our teachers to be a part of this,” Cameron said. “We’re also going to ask student teachers to be a part of it.”
Continuing on a topic that has come up in previous debates, the candidates clashed on school vouchers, or programs that would allow public funds to follow students from public schools who enroll in private schools. Kentucky currently does not allow school vouchers, but such a constitutional amendment allowing them may be considered by lawmakers in the near future.
“I would support primarily our public school system,” Cameron said. “Look, we need to make sure that we expand opportunity and choice.”
Beshear repeatedly voiced his opposition to school vouchers.
“They steal money from our public schools and send them to our private schools,” Beshear said. “The reason he won’t answer is he supports vouchers. He has time and time again, but what’s concerning is he won’t be honest with you and answer a direct question and look in the camera.”
Toward the end of the debate, the candidates also rehashed another contentious topic for them — abortion.
Cameron said last month that he would sign legislation adding exceptions in cases of rape and incest to Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban if the General Assembly passed it. However, he has not directly said if he personally supports those exceptions and continues to call himself the “pro-life candidate.” During a recent WLKY debate, Beshear asked Cameron to answer the question directly.
KET moderator Renee Shaw, who pressed for direct answers throughout the night, asked Cameron if he personally favored allowing exceptions in cases of rape and incest to Kentucky’s abortion law.
“We need to establish a culture of life. I want to be a governor that promotes life and make sure that there are life affirming options,” Cameron said.
The attorney general also called himself “Planned Parenthood’s worst nightmare,” pointing to the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who believed in eugenics, and noting that the organization has donated to Beshear’s campaign. . Planned Parenthood has denounced Sanger’s beliefs and a 1939 quote of hers about expanding birth control in southern Black communities has been taken out of context over time.
“I believe that victims of rape and incest deserve options, that there has to be an exception,” Beshear said during the debate, and also said he favored “reasonable restrictions, especially on late-term abortions.”
Cameron was also asked why he joined 18 Republican attorneys general this summer in signing a letter that opposed a proposed federal privacy rule that would block state officials from getting information on residents’ reproductive health care services they received outside of Kentucky, and if he wanted to criminalize women for seeking abortions or abortion providers.
Cameron replied by saying “absolutely not” and said he was strongly opposed to a bill that would create criminal penalties for women considering abortions earlier this year.
The candidates’ fifth and final debate will be Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. Eastern, and hosted by WKYT of Lexington.
Running mates for Beshear and Cameron — Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and state Sen. Robby Mills respectively — will face each other next week in a KET debate on Monday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
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