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COLUMN: Beshear’s re-election was historic, but national democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up

Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

The night of Nov. 7, 2023 was a good one for Kentucky Democrats — Buddy Wheatly, Pamela Stevenson, Kim Reeder, Michael Bowman and Sierra Enlow notwithstanding.

Gov. Andy Beshear’s re-election became a national focal point of the night, but I’d caution Democrats facing tough races next year from giving it undue prophetic importance.

For decades, Kentucky’s off-year gubernatorial election has been called a bellwether for the presidential race in the following year; when Kentuckians elect a Democrat, the nation tends to follow suit, and vice versa.

So I understand the temptation for the Joe Biden-camp to see Beshear win big and conflate it with their own victory. But President Biden is not Beshear.

This race was idiosyncratic and bore some distinct characteristics that won’t play in the imminent Biden-Trump rematch.

Beshear is incredibly popular — among the most popular governors in the union — and was boosted by effective responses to natural disasters. His tenor appeals to the nostalgic voter who’d vote for the party of Kennedy but not necessarily Biden.

He won at the confluence of a number of factors. A powerful family name, strong economic development and sustained trust among educators were certainly among them. Beshear’s popularity was hard-fought and well-earned.

Daniel Cameron also ran an atrocious campaign that hinged on ties to national issues to succeed. His comms team and surrogates (I’m looking at you, Sean Southard) misread the attitudes of Kentuckians and ran on a losing message.

Abortion was bound to be a focal point after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade., and it seemed at times that Cameron forgot the state rejected a constitutional amendment to ban the practice only last year.

The Republican challenger couldn’t quite decide how to run on the issue, and it allowed the governor to define it early on and characterize himself as the reasonable candidate in the race. Beshear’s cutthroat ad featuring a young victim of sexual assault set the stage for the public discourse on abortion in the race.

Transgender rights and the fallout of Senate Bill 150 were pitfalls for Cameron, too. He and his supporting political action committees cut ads arguing that Beshear and the Democrats are actively and maliciously infecting the minds of the youth with their “transgender ideology.”

Cameron ostensibly underestimated the voters who are capable of calling a spade a spade, and Beshear barely had to levy a defensive strategy. Last year’s midterms showed us that transphobic messaging is deeply off-putting for suburban swing voters.

As Fayette County Young Democrats President Emma Curtis told the Herald-Leader, “nobody likes a bully.” When Cameron wasn’t boring, he was flat-out mean.

It certainly paid off for Beshear — he expanded his margins among suburban voters and made inroads in places like Daviess County and Clark County, which are growing rapidly.

But I’m extremely skeptical that swing voters, especially in those Eastern Kentucky counties that Beshear flipped, cast their ballots on abortion or transgender rights. Many counties that had the most dramatic shifts for the governor also endorsed last year’s Amendment 2, which would have banned abortion.

I mention these issues at all because they are poised to be central to next year’s elections and because they buttress the real division on which Kentucky voters decided this year.

Cameron said it himself in his final ad of the season — Beshear is a “nice enough guy.” It’s an image the governor has meticulously crafted, and he was able to defend it easily given Cameron’s nastiness.

Stability, effectiveness and dignity were Beshear’s winning traits. He is a known quality, and voters rewarded him for his victories in the realms of disaster relief and economic growth. And he was able to capitalize on Cameron’s negativity to highlight his personal brand.

I won’t deliberate explicitly on why Beshear won, and by so much. Like I said, it was the confluence of a number of relevant factors. But national Democrats are already taking it as a sign that positive messaging on trans issues and abortion will carry them to historic victories.

If that were the case, then we should expect a markedly bluer Kentucky, which we certainly do not. And if Kentucky is to be a bellwether, then the signs show that unless a candidate has a strong personable identity, they’re doomed to partisan polarization.

That was the fate that every other statewide Democratic candidate in Kentucky faced — not even Beshear’s coattails could carry them over the finish line.

President Biden is bound to face a similar challenge. The American people have not given him the trust Kentuckians have given Beshear. His approval rating is under water and polling shows him behind Trump.

Already, pundits are claiming that Beshear’s win — and democratic victories in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — point to a brighter future than the polls suggest. It is easy for activists to claim that voter behavior in an off year is a better indicator for 2024 than polling.

This may be true. After all, polling is a snapshot whereas elections are mandates.

Voters gave Beshear a slim mandate in 2019, and he used it to keep his base happy and expand it.

They, too, gave Biden a slim mandate in 2020. It seems to me that, win or lose, he won’t have the same coalition next year.

Replacing Biden on the ticket is an increasingly popular idea, I won’t speak to its efficacy. But his path forward won’t look exactly like Beshear’s. His base of support remained stable and energized throughout his four years, but Biden will have ground to win back.

The themes of Kentucky’s gubernatorial race will reflect those of next year’s presidential, but voters will be making a far different kind of decision.

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