With the final hours before Nov. 7’s Election Day drawing near in the contentious and pivotal Kentucky gubernatorial race and a Nov. 3 poll showing the candidates in a dead heat, Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican challenger Daniel Cameron are frenetically crossing the state on bus tours and making their final pitches to voters.
The son of former two-term Democrat Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, Mr. Beshear was elected by a slim margin in 2019 when he defeated incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin by around 5,000 votes. Kentucky has a Republican super-majority in the state legislature, and President Donald Trump won the state by 26 percentage points in 2020, but Mr. Beshear was rated the nation’s most popular Democrat governor in a July poll conducted by Morning Consult.
Backed by President Trump, Mr. Cameron is the state attorney general and has tied Mr. Beshear to President Joe Biden and widely criticized the governor for his COVID pandemic restrictions impacting businesses, inflation, and virus-related school closures which he says resulted in learning loss among students.
Conservative figures like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is governor of Arkansas and President Trump’s former press secretary, and activist and former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, have joined Mr. Cameron on the campaign trail.
The Kentucky governor’s race is one of the nation’s most closely watched elections this year and could provide hints of what will happen in presidential and congressional campaigns in 2024.
Only two Republicans have been elected governor of Kentucky in the last 50 years, but the state has gradually shifted more conservative. Republicans have won the state in nine of the last 11 presidential elections. Republicans have captured U.S. Senate races in Kentucky since 1998, including current seatholders, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
Kentucky a Bellwether
Since 2003, the party that won the Kentucky governor’s race has won the presidential election the next year, according to J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of the Crystal Ball newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Campaign finance records show that Mr. Beshear has outspent Mr. Cameron $16.7 million to $3.4 million as of Oct. 23.
If what happens when the votes are tabulated on Nov. 7 reflects what the polls have indicated in recent weeks, Mr. Cameron could pull off a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
In early October, a survey from Emerson College Polling showed Mr. Beshear with a 16-point lead over Mr. Cameron.
On Nov. 3, Emerson College released a poll indicating Mr. Beshear and Mr. Cameron tied at 47 percent, with 4 percent of the respondents reporting they are undecided and 2 percent saying they are voting for someone else.
The survey gives Mr. Cameron a 49 percent to 48 percent advantage over Mr. Beshear when undecided voters were asked whom they were leaning toward.
The poll was conducted between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2 among 1,000 likely voters or those who had already voted. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
“Cameron appears to have gained ground by consolidating Republican voters who supported former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. In October, 54 percent of Trump supporters supported Cameron; now, as election day approaches, that number has jumped to 79 percent–a 25-point increase,” Emerson College Polling Executive Director Spencer Kimball said.
“Notably, October’s poll was of registered voters in Kentucky, while this final election poll includes only those who are very likely or have already voted in Kentucky,” he added.
Transgender Bills and Abortion
Mr. Cameron has repeatedly chastised Mr. Beshear for vetoing transgender bills, including one that banned gender-affirming care for transgender children and another that prevented transgender men from participating in women’s sports. The vetoes were overridden by Kentucky’s GOP-controlled legislature.
Mr. Beshear has attacked Mr. Cameron for the attorney general’s support for Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban.
An October TV ad featured a Kentucky woman who said she was raped by her stepfather when she was 12, became pregnant as a seventh grader, and miscarried.
“Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” the woman says as she looks into the camera.
In a statement released after the ad aired, Mr. Cameron said about Mr. Beshear, “He lectures us on partisanship and unity, then runs disgusting, false attacks. I have said if the legislature were to bring me a bill with exceptions, I would sign it.”
Mr. Cameron told a Kentucky TV station that he still supports Kentucky’s abortion measure that requires rape and incest victims to carry their pregnancies to term and noted that his “heart goes out” to the “young lady,” and he appreciates that she shared her story.
Mr. Beshear has encouraged unity between Democrats and Republicans throughout his campaign. After defeating an unpopular incumbent governor by a narrow margin in 2019 and faced with President Biden’s low approval numbers in a state decisively won by President Trump in 2020, Mr. Beshear recognizes that he needs support from some conservatives to get a second term.
At a stop in Bardstown earlier this week, he told reporters, “We run as proud Democrats, but we realize the moment you win, you take that hat off, and you serve every single family in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Everyone.”
“The fact that most things that families care about aren’t partisan, they’re non-partisan. And that we shouldn’t be moving a state to the right, or the left, but moving it forward for every family,” Mr. Beshear added.
“Just think. We’re coming off the two best years for economic development in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Mr. Beshear said.
Mr. Beshear’s strategy is a direct contrast to Mr. Cameron’s platform, which centers around Mr. Beshear and President Biden sharing the same party.
Mr. Beshear Linked to President Biden
Mr. Cameron has often linked Mr. Beshear to President Biden in debates.
“I think we have to make sure that here in Kentucky, we remove the biggest enabler of Joe Biden, who is Andy Beshear,” Mr. Cameron said.
Mr. Cameron mentioned President Biden’s name more than a dozen times during the debate.
“I think this is a race about crazy versus normal. And I think it’s crazy to have a governor who endorses Joe Biden for president.” Mr. Cameron said at another forum.
A super PAC backing Mr. Cameron placed an ad with a video endorsement from President Trump where he told viewers that Mr. Beshear’s endorsement of President Biden “is about as bad as it gets.”
“I know there’s a lot of folks here that want to make sure we get Joe Biden out of the White House. But before we do that, let’s remove Andy Beshear from the statehouse,” Mr. Cameron said in a campaign stop this week.
President Biden won just 36 percent of the Kentucky vote in 2020, yet polls show that he has widespread appeal in the state. Morning Consult also reported that, between July and September this year, 60 percent of Kentucky voters had a positive view of Mr. Beshear’s job performance. That figure included 43 percent of Republican respondents.
Mr. Beshear rarely discusses national politics during his campaign speeches. He says he has and will continue to embrace bi-partisan cooperation on statewide issues like the economy, infrastructure, and education.
“He’s trying to confuse people, to make them think that this is the race for president. It’s not,” Mr. Beshear said.
Mr. Beshear points to job creation from economic development and record-low unemployment rates as reasons he should be re-elected.
“When you’re on a historic winning streak, you don’t fire the coach,” Mr. Beshear said at a campaign stop in September. “You don’t sub out the quarterback. You keep that team on the field.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.