By Perry Bacon Jr.
One of the criticisms expressed both privately and at times publicly by Kentucky Democrats about Attorney General Andy Beshear’s gubernatorial campaign is that it’s a replay of Jack Conway’s unsuccessful effort in 2015. The similarities between the two campaigns are obvious.
Beshear, like Conway in 2015, is a white man in his 40s who is the sitting attorney general and part of the state’s political establishment. Neither man is considered a particularly compelling public speaker. Beshear, like Conway, is arguably running a campaign less about his own ideas for Kentucky and more about his concerns about Matt Bevin.
So is Beshear, if he wins the Democratic nomination, doomed to lose like Conway? And is his strategy (focusing on Bevin) clearly a bad one? I wouldn’t be so sure. There’s one huge difference between Conway’s 2015 campaign and Beshear’s this year. Conway was running against the potential of Bevin being a divisive, unpopular governor. Beshear, if he is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, will be running against the real thing — Bevin as the most unpopular governor in the United States.
A Democratic campaign very focused on Bevin’s flaws might land differently with the electorate in 2019 compared to 2015, because four years ago Bevin didn’t have a record as the state’s chief executive of criticizing teachers, feuding with members of his own party in the state legislature and pushing controversial legislation.
National politics are different from state races of course, but it’s worth examining the 2016 and 2018 federal results as we look at Kentucky this year.
In 2016, Democrats nationally ran aggressively against Donald Trump, warning that he would be a divisive president if elected. These criticisms worked to some extent — Trump was fairly unpopular by November 2016 and barely won the presidency. But by 2018, Democrats were able to run against Trump’s actual record in office — and that was easier for them. Democrats won the House largely because of a huge anti-Trump backlash.
Beshear is running for governor with a playbook similar to the one that boosted congressional Democrats last year — defending the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, avoiding more controversial liberal ideas like Medicare-for-all and trying to keep the public’s attention on the unpopular Republican (Bevin/Trump.)
Can this work for Beshear? His biggest challenge is the same as it will be for House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins or former State Auditor Adam Edelen if they win the nomination — can any Democrat win over enough independent and Republican-leaning voters to be elected statewide here?
Kentucky is an increasingly conservative Republican state, particularly in terms of national politics, and Bevin is already trying to make the governor’s race akin to a national contest.
The governor is casting the Democrats running for governor as “socialists,” aligning them with figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both of whom are in reality well to the left of the Democrats running for governor.
Bevin is playing up his connections to Trump, who remains popular here (56 percent of Kentuckians approve of the president, according to Morning Consult, compared to just 33 percent who approve of Bevin.)
If Bevin is upset by state representative Robert Goforth in the GOP gubernatorial primary, Democrats might be in even more trouble — facing a Republican without Bevin’s baggage.
What Democrats who don’t like Beshear’s strategy worry about is that he will have a problem with Democratic voters in the general election, namely that his campaign won’t inspire them to turn out, because he is not a particularly compelling candidate or running in a dynamic way.
Edelen is taking a different approach, emphasizing his full-throated support of the right to an abortion and other more progressive stands. It’s hard to measure this precisely, but Edelen does seem to be generating more enthusiasm and excitement among Democratic activists than Beshear, who may nonetheless have more supporters overall.
In contrast to Edelen, Beshear’s campaign appears to be banking on Bevin providing the excitement — voters in the general election will be extra-motivated to get rid of the incumbent.
It’s hard to know if Beshear or Edelen’s strategy is best. But a campaign centered on anti-Bevin sentiments doesn’t seem obviously flawed. Andy Beshear and Jack Conway may be similar candidates — but 2019 isn’t 2015.
Perry Bacon is a national political writer who is based in Louisville. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interested in more discussion and analysis ahead of next Tuesday’s primaries? Join Perry and Insider Louisville at News and Brews: Primary Preview, this Thursday, May 16 from 6-7:30 p.m. at The Manhattan Project.