Democrats can still win in Trump country after all.
President Joe Biden lost Kentucky by more than 25 points three years ago. But Andy Beshear’s win Tuesday night shows that there is still a path for at least one Democrat to thread that needle in deep-red states.
Beshear, the incumbent governor, defeated state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. He was up by more than six points when the Associated Press called the race just before 9 p.m.
Beshear’s win could provide some clues for the 2024 elections, even though Kentucky won’t be competitive in the presidential race. Chief among them: Biden’s dismal approval ratings might not be as big of an electoral drag as they would appear at first glance.
Republicans tried relentlessly to turn this race into a referendum — but not about the popular incumbent governor. Instead, they tried to yoke Beshear to Biden to drag him down in a state where Biden will almost assuredly be trounced next year.
Republican ad after Republican ad tied the two together, looking to paint Beshear as a flunky of the president. It was also a key part of Cameron’s stump speech. Beshear, for his part, largely kept his distance: Biden was absent on the Democratic side outside of a bridge ribbon-cutting at the beginning of the year — which Senate Minority Leader Mtich McConnell also attended — and Beshear acknowledging in an interview with a local editorial board that he supports the president’s reelection.
Beshear made a passing reference to that failed effort on Tuesday. His win was “a message that candidates should run for something and not against someone,” Beshear said. He did not mention Biden by name in his brief speech.
Republicans also went hard on the culture war issues that the party has focused on across the country, running ads attacking Beshear on transgender rights and crime. The top three topics in advertising from Republicans, far and away, were crime, LGBTQ rights and Biden.
Beshear said Tuesday night that his win is “a clear statement that anger politics should end right here, right now.”
The fact that Beshear was able to survive that onslaught suggests that voters, even in red states, aren’t punishing the Democratic Party broadly for their misgivings with Biden.
Beshear’s victory will also serve to validate Democrats’ extensive focus on abortion in elections since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last year. Beshear launched a series of ads throughout the campaign going after Cameron for the state’s near-total abortion ban, which does not include exemptions for cases of rape or incest.
While it was not among the primary issues in Democratic advertising, according to data from AdImpact, advertising hammering Cameron over abortion was a notable part of Beshear’s advertising mix — and those ads ran statewide, not just in liberal-leaning Louisville.
It marked a significant turnaround from four years ago. In 2019, then-incumbent GOP Gov. Matt Bevin ripped into Beshear on abortion, going so far as to label him “pro-death” in an ad.
Beshear relying on abortion rights messaging just four years later is a significant sign that voters’ anger about the Supreme Court overturning Roe has not abated.
Democrats are likely to go full steam ahead on abortion-related advertising next year — even in battlegrounds where talking about abortion even two years ago would have been unthinkable.
And Beshear’s win is a positive sign for Democrats looking to claw their way back with rural voters.
Cameron’s loss may also signal that former President Donald Trump’s grip over red state voters isn’t absolute. Trump endorsed Cameron early in the contest — last summer, ahead of what turned out to be a competitive primary — and Republicans’ closing messages heavily leaned on that endorsement.
The race also leaves a rising Republican star adrift. Cameron is a protegé of McConnell and had long been seen as the heir apparent to the minority leader’s Senate seat before he surprised Republicans — both in Kentucky and Washington — by launching his gubernatorial bid.
“Well, that didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted it to,” Cameron said at the top of his concession speech.
He would have presented as a new face of the party: A young new leader of the GOP and the first Black governor of Kentucky.
Instead, Cameron is now set to leave public office in weeks, with an uncertain political future ahead of him. He gave little indication for his future plans Tuesday night. “We will return to trying to be the hands and feet of Christ,” Cameron said.
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