Commentary

Kentucky counties hit hardest by disasters swing toward Beshear

December 6, 2023 5:45 am

In Letcher County, Gov. Andy Beshear announces plans for a housing development for flood victims, The Cottages at Thompson Branch in Marlowe. (Photo provided by governor’s office)

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was reelected last month with 52.5% of the vote, a significant improvement on his razor thin margin of victory in 2019. Many of the largest shifts toward Beshear occurred in counties hardest hit by recent natural disasters, including the 2022 flooding in southeast Kentucky and the 2021 tornado across western Kentucky.

While three in four Kentucky counties swung toward Beshear in 2023, the extent of the vote swing in disaster-impacted counties is notable. The seven counties with the largest vote swings across the state were all affected by the 2022 flood. The average swing in those seven counties was a 9.0% shift toward Beshear — nearly four times the state average of 2.3%. (Vote swing is the change in Beshear’s margin over his Republican opponent from 2019 to 2023, divided by two.) 

This map from LPM News shows the largest vote swings in the southeast counties. (Map courtesy of Justin Hicks, LPM News)

The 2021 tornado and 2022 flood were not the only federally-declared natural disasters in Kentucky since Beshear took office, but they were by far the most destructive. Together these two disasters took more than 100 lives and destroyed or damaged over 10,000 homes. Local elected officials from both parties praised Beshear’s efforts after these disasters, and journalists and experts have suggested the disasters may have played a role in Beshear’s victory.

However, not all of the counties impacted by these two disasters swung toward Beshear. Magoffin County, in southeast Kentucky, was impacted by the 2022 flood and swung 4.2% toward Daniel Cameron, Beshear’s Republican opponent. Many of the tornado-hit counties in western Kentucky did not see huge vote swings toward Beshear. But if we look at the counties where the damage was most severe, the swing toward Beshear was consistent and larger. 

Of the 29 counties impacted by the two disasters, there were nine counties where at least 10% of households in the county applied for FEMA aid,  which signifies a considerable share of the county population was impacted. In these nine counties where disaster damage was worst — three in western Kentucky and six in eastern Kentucky — the average swing toward Beshear was 5.8%, which is about 2.5 times the state average. By comparison the average vote swing among the remaining 20 disaster-impacted counties, where less than 10% of households applied for FEMA aid, was 1.9%. 

Plenty of things can affect vote swing. But the large swings in the counties where a high share of the local population was disaster-impacted suggests that Beshear’s handling of these disasters had a real impact on his support.

Families impacted by these disasters were at their most vulnerable. Some lost family members, many had their homes totally wiped away, others witnessed traumatic events or lost their jobs. You don’t soon forget when someone — friends, your church, your governor — is there for you in moments like these when your family’s future hangs in the balance. 

The results raise the question of what might have given Beshear the edge with voters regarding the disasters. Was it his consistent personal visits to impacted counties and his perception as a “consoler in chief,” his vocal frustration with FEMA’s application process and aid denials, his establishment of prominent relief funds for each disaster, his leadership spearheading “higher ground” housing developments in southeast Kentucky, or something else?

As the climate continues to change and more disasters strike, the handling of response and recovery efforts will become more critical. More families will be directly affected and the impacts will ripple through our economy and environment. 

They may also shape the fate of our elected officials.

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Eric Dixon
Eric Dixon

Eric Dixon is a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute and a resident of Louisville. He co-authored a report on the housing damage from the 2022 flooding in southeast Kentucky.

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