This fall, something strange might happen: a Democrat could win statewide in Kentucky. On November 3rd, the Bluegrass State will hold its gubernatorial election. If the betting markets are to be believed, incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is the heavy favorite; at the time of writing, PredictIt share prices imply that the governor has roughly a four-in-five chance of winning another term in a race against Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
In 2019, then-Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, narrowly defeated Republican Matt Bevin. Bevin, one of the most unpopular governors in the country at the time, had faced a tough primary (a challenger won 39% of the vote to Bevin’s 52%) and backlash over his reaction to a teacher’s strike. On the same day that the younger Beshear won the governor’s mansion, Cameron was elected to succeed him as attorney general, winning more than 100,000 more votes than either Bevin or Beshear did at the top of the ticket. Cameron, the state’s first Black attorney general and a protégé of Sen. Mitch McConnell, was quickly tapped as a rising star in the GOP — he gave a speech at the 2020 RNC — and a likely challenger to Beshear in 2023.
On paper, this race should’ve been Cameron’s to lose: Beshear is seeking re-election in a very Republican state (Donald Trump carried Kentucky by 26 percentage points) with an unpopular Democrat in the White House (according to FiveThirtyEight, President Biden’s net approval rating is -14). And yet most observers expect another four years for Beshear — why?
Beshear benefits from what might be called the “Charlie Baker effect.” Because Republicans hold 80% or more of the seats in both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly, Beshear has very little leeway to advance liberal policies that would be unpopular in the state. The governor can do little beyond veto the most conservative Republican legislation — much of which becomes law anyway, as Republicans have more than enough votes to override him. This dynamic allows Beshear to fashion himself as a check on one-party dominance of state politics and the defender of the status quo. (The empirical research on thermostatic public opinion finds that voters generally dislike big changes in policy.)
As such, Beshear is quite a popular incumbent with substantial crossover appeal. According to Morning Consult’s numbers from July, Beshear’s net approval rating is +32 (64% approve/32% disapprove), bolstered by roughly half of Republican voters approving of the governor. But no one survives a campaign: and he has fallen out of Morning Consult’s top ten most popular governors in their latest survey. An Emerson College poll from October had Beshear leading 49-33 in the general election, winning 85% of Democratic voters, 44% of independents, and 28% of Republicans; the survey Cameron winning only 25% of independents and 53% of Republicans. Other public polling shows a tighter race, but generally gives the governor a mid-single digit lead.
Of course, it would be remiss not to address the elephant in the room: abortion. Broadly speaking, Kentucky voters lean pro-life — Split Ticket’s analysis of survey data pegs the state at net +18 pro-life — but it is also roughly 7 points more pro-choice than presidential margins would suggest. Last year, a ballot question stating that there was no right to abortion in the state constitution failed by roughly 5 percentage points. The upshot of all of this is that the Dobbs ruling likely gives Democrats a tailwind in Kentucky. The Beshear campaign seems to agree, with an ad up on air highlighting Cameron’s opposition to exceptions for rape and incest.
According to AdImpact Politics, Beshear enjoys a roughly 2:1 spending advantage, with Democrats having spent $42.1 million to Republicans’ $23.2 million. That said, the betting markets are likely overconfident here. Beshear is the favorite, but Cameron should not be written off: at the end of the day, a Republican winning in Kentucky would not be particularly surprising.
Most polls close at 6pm Eastern time but western counties close at 7pm Eastern/6 central. Decision Desk HQ will have the results here as they become available.