When Democrat Andy Beshear won the 2019 gubernatorial contest, election observers both inside and outside Kentucky passed off his success as a fluke.
Usually, they didn’t even give Beshear credit for his own victory. Instead, they attributed Beshear’s win to his opponent, combative Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Beshear won because Bevin was “a jerk.”
Now Beshear has scored himself a second term of office, this time fending off a challenger with an upbeat, almost Reaganesque disposition little like Bevin’s. But that hasn’t stopped commentators from treating Beshear’s victory as another unearned gift from the opposition.
Some progressives apparently want to believe that Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s loss reflects the politics of race, either Cameron’s or his handling of the Breonna Taylor investigation, while Republicans prefer to focus on weaknesses in Cameron’s campaign, which I’ve seen called uninspiring, undisciplined, underfunded, and (by Donald Trump) polluted with “the stench of Mitch McConnell.”
Even when pundits grant that Beshear’s success in a pro-Trump state might have had something to do with Beshear himself, they usually emphasize superficial advantages he exploited. They credit Beshear’s apparent niceness: Supporters, after all, call him Andy. They credited Andy’s initial success to name recognition built by his father Steve, who governed the commonwealth for two terms prior to Bevin. Now they’re crediting the son’s renewed success to the “incumbency advantage” — that is, to the simple fact of already being governor.
Those explanations may contain elements of truth, but it would sell Andy Beshear short to treat the state’s last two gubernatorial elections as happy accidents for the Democratic Party, or to attribute his success to some kind of inexplicable magic wrapped into the Beshear name.
Dismissing Beshear’s success in this way is more than just unfair to him. Treating Beshear’s win as a fluke means treating it as the pathetic last gasp of partisan competition in Kentucky. That sort of pessimistic thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ambitious young politicos avoid the minority party, as potential candidates for that party decide not to run, and as campaign contributors decide to invest their limited funds elsewhere. It can do damage to the health of the commonwealth’s party system.
Democrats have won four of the last five Kentucky gubernatorial contests not because of accidents, but because the Beshears put together a meaningful and potentially durable coalition that other Democrats could replicate.
Beshear’s victory is meaningful for future Kentucky elections because he performed so well among the sort of educated voters who historically backed the GOP.
A common national storyline has been to tie Beshear’s victory to abortion rights, a reaction to Kentucky’s stringent abortion restrictions triggered by the fall of Roe v. Wade. Yes, abortion was a flashpoint this year, but the effect of culture war politics in Kentucky has not been a one-time thing.
When Beshear ran for governor in 2019, the Democratic Party already was making headway among voters in the suburbs and “exurbs,” and he outperformed other Democrats there. So they didn’t suddenly swing to Beshear to defend abortion. They’ve been moving leftward since the GOP hitched its star to Trump and political conflict started revolving around identity issues.
The Beshear coalition can be durable because voting behavior is sticky.
When pundits bat around stories for why an election turned out the way it did, they almost always focus on what changed. That’s the “newsworthy” angle. But if I’m trying to guess how Beshear performed in a county in 2023, and I’m only allowed a single piece of information to help guide my guess, what I want to know is: How did Beshear perform there in 2019? That four-year-old pattern is more predictive of Beshear’s vote share than a slew of more-recent numbers, including 2020 support for Donald Trump.
Give voters similar choices, and most people will vote the same way even if four years have passed. That’s why communities consistently back candidates from the same party: Usually each party offers products similar to ones they’ve sold before. Beshear in 2023 was much the same candidate offered to voters in 2019, and voters responded similarly to him each time.
Voters may depart from past patterns if, looking back on a leader’s performance, they see the politician in a new way. (Political scientists call it “retrospective voting.”) In that sense, Beshear was not giving voters exactly the same choice in 2023, because he’d run up a track record leading the state through crisis after crisis. The Beshear product came with the same name, but it had more brand loyalty attached to it after a term in office and he outdid his previous victory.
Political payoff from Beshear’s job approval appeared most dramatically in the flood-ravaged counties of Eastern Kentucky, where voters abundantly rewarded his efforts to assist them. But electoral benefit from the Beshear administration’s work likely extended beyond the impacted region, as voters heard how Beshear was rebuilding the disaster area. More broadly, the Beshear record on energy issues allowed Andy to outperform most Democrats in coal counties.
This is the incumbency advantage, yes, but it’s one that’s earned, not automatic — and potentially replicable if other Democratic politicians accrue trust with voters while working their way up the political career ladder.
So I’m more optimistic about Democratic Party prospects in Kentucky than are pundits who treat Beshear’s victories as accidental. The Beshear coalition is meaningful, and has the potential to be durable if the Kentucky Democratic Party fields the sort of candidates who can tap into it. Replicate Beshear’s pattern of support, and Democrats not only will win statewide offices, they’ll approach parity in the statehouse.
But success is far from guaranteed. Democratic politicians may not show the patience needed to build up voter trust by working hard on bread-and-butter issues. They might not be able to resist the temptation to harp on hot-button controversies, the way progressive activists push Democrats to do. A culture war strategy will serve Democrats in a conservative state no better, and likely worse, than it has served Republicans seeking the governorship.