Shortly after Matt Bevin became Kentucky Governor in 2015, it became clear that we’d never seen a politician quite like him.
He refused to release his taxes. He just wouldn’t speak to the media. He plowed ahead with his ideas — to upend the teacher pension system, use state dollars to buy and aluminum company, overhaul higher ed funding — without waiting for buy-in.
But by 2016, we got a new president named Donald Trump and realized we had our own mini-Trump in Frankfort, all the way down to Bevin’s refusal to accept his election loss to the even-keel Andy Beshear in 2019. The very next year, the country picked its own more moderate leader in Joe Biden.
That’s not a fluke. Since 2003, the party that has won the race for Kentucky governor has won the presidential election the next year, said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of the Crystal Ball newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Consider: Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2003 and President George W. Bush in 2004. Then Gov. Steve Beshear in 2007 and President Barack Obama in 2008. Both men won two terms, as Andy Beshear and Biden are trying to do.
“It could be one of those things that’s a trend until it’s not,” said Coleman, who for now has deemed the Beshear-Daniel Cameron race “leans Democratic.” But it’s possible that state-wide elections can signal certain leanings in the electorate, such as a willingness to go for fiery, non-traditional candidates like Bevin and Trump, then back to the more moderate and traditional as represented by Beshear and Biden.
Seven weeks from the election and we’re seeing some trends that look pretty similar at the state and federal levels. Mostly, of course, about abortion.
On Monday, Attorney General Cameron said he would sign any bill as governor that allowed rape and incest in Kentucky’s strict abortion laws, a sharp veer from numerous previous statements upholding the lack thereof. He also came out swinging in his support for birth control after a questionnaire that conflated abortion and birth control. He’s backed off on other issues, too, such as apologizing to teachers for harsh GOP rhetoric against them.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump, who endorsed Cameron for governor, said six-week abortion bans had cost Republicans in the mid-terms and would hurt them again in 2024. On Meet the Press, he called them a ‘terrible mistake.” He was pilloried by his primary opponents, but he’s probably noticed, as Coleman noted, that there have been seven statewide referendums on abortion since the Dobbs decision. All of them, including Kentucky’s, ended in a pro-choice vote.
Shauna Reilly, a political science professor at Northern Kentucky University, said the most recent campaign ads — such as Beshear’s featuring a girl raped by her stepfather — have focused on abortion at the same time it’s been part of the larger national conversation.
“They’re putting abortion on the ballot,” she said. “One argument in political science is that most people are centrists, and only a few issues push us more to the right or left. Talking about abortion certainly resonates with folks.”
“It’s a really good wedge issue that you’re either for or against,” she said.
If most voters, even in a red state like Kentucky, hew toward the center and against extremism, it would also reflect less conversation about transgender issues recently. National polls have repeatedly shown that voters in both parties don’t like targeting transgender people, especially kids.
But it’s going to be much harder to predict the 2024 presidential race than the 2020 one, regardless of who wins in Kentucky.
Both Biden and Trump are unpopular; even Democrats are worried about Biden’s age and general ability. We are through with the pandemic and don’t need a caretaker president. At the same time, plenty of voters are concerned about Trump, now facing 91 charges in four separate indictments.
Cameron is no Trump — he’s not a lying narcissist or under indictment — but his victory in Kentucky would certainly buoy doubtful Republican hopes about their certain nominee. At the same time, Beshear’s victory would mean there’s still an appetite for the kind of centrist Democratic policies that both he and Biden represent.
Generally, Ohio has always been held up as a better bellwether for national politics, but Kentucky may be close behind. After all, we’re a bright red state with a GOP supermajority and a Democratic governor, just as confused and conflicted as the next state, and the larger country beyond.