Gov. Andy Beshear waves to the crowd after winning reelection, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, at Old Forrester’s Paristown Hall in Louisville. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)
LOUISVILLE — Democrat Andy Beshear will now be a two-term governor, but the next four years may look a little different than what the incumbent has shown Kentucky so far.
According to Tuesday night’s unofficial returns, Beshear brought home 52.5% of the vote, while his Republican challenger, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, received 47.5%.
Beshear gained votes in Eastern Kentucky, an ancestrally Democratic region that has leaned Republican in recent years, and narrowly flipped two counties that he lost in 2019, Letcher and Perry. Beshear also slightly increased the percentage of votes he received in Jefferson and Fayette counties from the last election by 3 and 6.5 percentage points respectively.
Beshear’s message was often one of bipartisanship, even while Cameron and Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly decried what they say is Beshear’s non-relationship with them. On Election Night, Beshear vowed to continue being “a governor who serves all of our people regardless of your party and regardless of who you voted for.”
“Our neighbors aren’t just Democrats. They’re not just Republicans. They’re not just independents,” the governor said to the crowd gathered for his victory party. “Every single person is a child of God and they are all our neighbors.”
Party building at home?
What’s on the minds of many looking to next year’s legislative elections is whether Beshear will try to strengthen the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Beshear has done well to keep on the good side of voters, but his success has not built up his party. Democrats currently hold a very small minority in the General Assembly, and Beshear and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, were the only Democrats elected to the executive branch in 2019 and 2023. In a second term, Beshear could focus on growing those numbers.
Democrats would hope, Voss said, that Beshear may use his clout and visibility “to try to make the state Democratic party stronger than it currently is.”
House Minority Leader Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said with a second term, Beshear is better positioned to help flip seats in the legislature.
“If those members who come from those counties who are on the other side and they are deliberately keeping him from carrying out policies that the people are saying ‘we want,’ I think he could be a difference in the ‘24 election cycle,” Graham said.
Graham said Beshear’s latest win gives him “more leverage” with the legislature and noted that Beshear’s support grew statewide from the 2019 election. The minority leader said he hopes lawmakers work with the governor because of his support from Kentuckians.
“You look at the areas that he has picked up tonight that he did not have four years ago, and it’s obvious that the public is supportive of it,” Graham said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Eastern Kentucky or southcentral Kentucky or here in Louisville and Lexington-Bluegrass area. They are saying, ‘We like what he’s doing. Continue to support him and be with him and work with him.’”
However, House Majority Leader Steven Rudy, R-Paducah, said Tuesday night that Beshear has not worked with the legislature during his first term but “he campaigned on all our accomplishments.” Rudy said Beshear campaigned on GOP legislative initiatives, such as lowering the state income tax and that Beshear’s campaign benefited from economic policies passed by the General Assembly.
“The GOP stands ready to work with him, as we have for the previous four years. He has had no interest in working with us,” Rudy said of Beshear. “And congratulations to him. He campaigned on all our accomplishments for the last three months, and we look forward to working with him. Hopefully, he sees that we have good policies since he campaigned on them.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, congratulated Beshear on his win in a Wednesday morning statement, but expressed disappointment in the outcome. Stivers said the General Assembly will continue to focus on passing policies it has supported since 2017 and “bring forth legislation to protect Kentucky families from some of the extreme agendas of the Beshear and Biden administrations.”
“I am hopeful that in his second term, though, the Governor will choose to work collaboratively with his co-equal branch of government,” Stivers said. “This General Assembly remains committed to a fiscally responsible budget and creating an environment for economic growth.”
A sign of national interest in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election can be found in the $65 million both campaigns and outside groups spent on the election. Kentucky is one of just three states that elected governors this year. Mississippi reelected Republican Tate Reeves Tuesday; Louisiana elected Republican Jeff Landry last month.
Both Beshear and Cameron gained the eyes of their national political parties.
Voss noted that a Beshear win means that “people will be talking about him as a potential presidential candidate or vice presidential candidate” in the next few years. Beshear has now won two terms as a Democratic governor in a state that former President Donald Trump won in 2016 and 2020.
“There have been noises along those lines already, just based on his popularity ratings,” Voss said. “But if Beshear wins, then nobody’s going to be able to say his governorship was a fluke.”
The 2019 gubernatorial election, when Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by almost 5,000 votes, could be framed as a referendum on how Kentuckians felt about Bevin. However, Beshear has now faced “two very different Republicans,” Voss said.
Cameron’s messaging embraced much of the recent culture wars legislation that has passed in Frankfort — despite Beshear’s futile vetoes. The attorney general also often vowed to work with the Republican supermajority in Frankfort and to eliminate the state income tax.
Cameron selected state Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, as his running mate, who sponsored legislation preventing transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams at their schools. The rhetoric was highlighted by former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines joining Cameron and Mills on the trail last week as she recounted how she tied with former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a transwoman athlete, for fifth place in the 2022 NCAA Championships 200-yard freestyle event. Pieces of Cameron’s public safety plan, such as establishing a Kentucky State Police post and passing a wiretapping law for law enforcement, appeared in a sweeping anti-crime bill proposed by Louisville Republicans.
Sandra Ardrey, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said Beshear will likely attempt to work with Republicans again over the next four years.
“There were lots of bipartisan issues that the parties agreed on,” she said. “So, I think if he can work towards that, then he can continue to be prosperous.”
Ardrey said Beshear is likely to continue his focus in his second term on developing the state’s economy, encouraging job growth and expanding access to Wi-Fi, especially in the state’s rural areas.
Rocky Adkins, who is currently Beshear’s senior adviser and a former member of the House of Representatives, told reporters after Tuesday’s results came in that the Beshear administration’s future legislative priorities will include funding for public education, supporting economic development and investing in infrastructure around the state.
“It’s unbelievable the momentum we have in Kentucky right now,” Adkins said. “It’s something that I’ve never seen in my lifetime. And we got to capture it, we got to take advantage of it, and we got to build that bright future for every Kentuckian across this great commonwealth.”
Liam Niemeyer contributed to this report.
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