All Eyes on Kentucky

On Tuesday, November 7th, voters will go to the polls across half a dozen states in the last major partisan test before the 2024 presidential election. The contests include local elections in Pennsylvania and New York City, legislative contests in New Jersey and Virginia, an abortion referendum in Ohio, and contests for governor in Mississippi and Kentucky.

Of these, the most important may well be Kentucky, where Democrat Governor Andy Beshear is running for reelection against Attorney General Daniel Cameron. 

The race to be Kentucky’s next chief executive is key not because it will have any particularly great impact on policy. The powers of a Kentucky governor are sharply curtailed, with a bare majority in both chambers of the legislature sufficing to overturn a veto. Republicans currently enjoy majorities of 80-19 and 31-7 in the Kentucky House and Senate, respectively, allowing them to easily pass legislation over Beshear’s objections.

Rather, the importance of Kentucky’s election lies in the fact that it is competitive at all.

Andy Beshear has consistently ranked among the most popular governors in the country. This weekend, Morning Consult found him with a 60 percent-35 percent approval rating. Beshear’s opponent, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, is however a compelling candidate. If he emerges victorious on Tuesday, Cameron would make history as both the nation’s first black Republican governor and its youngest at 37.

Nonetheless, the perception of Cameron as a protégé of Senator Mitch McConnell has made it challenging to portray himself as an outsider. With Kentucky voters indicating in polls they are happy with the status quo, and Cameron unable to make a compelling case for why he would differ, Beshear has steadily built up a double-digit lead over the summer. At the start of October, an Emerson poll had Beshear leading Cameron by 16 points, 49 percent to 33 percent.

Then something happened. Four weeks later, another Emerson poll suddenly showed Cameron leading by 1 percent. Beshear had barely lost support, registering 48 percent at the end of October compared with 49 percent at the start of the month. Rather it was Cameron who had swept the undecided electorate, going from 33 percent to 49 percent.

There is some disagreement between the campaigns as to how much the race has tightened. Both have released internal polling, with Beshear’s showing him up 8 percent and Cameron’s showing Beshear leading by 2 percent, but in each case Beshear’s popularity is not translating into electoral support.

In short, the election in Kentucky is a test of the willingness of voters to separate out their local candidate preferences from national partisanship. Kentucky is a deeply red state, and only becoming redder. While Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win Kentucky’s Electoral College votes in 1996, the margins for Republicans have steadily grown.

Furthermore, Kentucky voters were often willing to cast ballots for Democrats locally. Democrats controlled the state House of Representatives until 2016, but now control less than a fifth of the seats.



State House


46–45 D

64-36 D


57–41 R

64-36 D


60-40 R

57-43 D


57-41 R

65–35 D


60-38 R

55-45 D


63-33 R

64-36 R



75-25 R

When we examine Kentucky’s trajectory, two transition dates appear.

First, after going for Bill Clinton twice, 1996 would mark the last year a Democrat would win a federal election in Kentucky. While Democrats would perform reasonably well in Senate races, receiving 48 percent of the vote in 1998, 49 percent in 2004 and 47 percent in 2008, they have not won a Senate or presidential race in the following twenty-six years. Democrats retained a floor, winning between 38 percent and 41 percent of the vote in presidential races until the bottom fell out in 2016.

The post-2016 drop may look marginal given the margins by which Republicans were already winning Kentucky’s presidential vote, but it was accompanied by a down-ballot cascade.

Until 2016, Democrats had maintained control of the state House, often by large margins, even as they lost Kentucky in presidential years. But after 2016, Democrats’ local collapse was rapid.

The post-2016 shift was less than the 2 percent to 5 percent of voters who switched from Democrat to Republican in presidential elections (Joe Biden only did 2 percent worse than Obama in 2012). Rather, whereas 12 percent to 15 percent of Kentucky voters were willing to vote for Democrats in state elections even as they voted for Republican candidates for president until 2016, they were no longer willing to do so after.

Technically, the shift started slightly before the 2016 election. Democrats had dominated Kentucky’s state government for decades, with the brief exception of Republican Ernie Fletcher’s single-term as governor from 2003 to 2007. Fletcher was defeated by a landslide margin in 2007 by Steve Beshear, the father of the current Governor. The elder Beshear would go on to win an even larger landslide when he ran for reelection in 2011, making Fletcher’s win in 2003 look even more like an outlier. That Fletcher’s victory still represented the narrowest margin of victory for any candidate in decades helped persuade Democrats and analysts that whatever happened federally, they had the state on lockdown.


Gubernatorial Result


60.7%-22.2% D


55%-45% R


58.7%-41.3% D


55.7%-35.3% D


52.5%-43.8% R


49.2%-48.8% D

Democrats therefore had every reason to feel confident as they approached the 2015 gubernatorial election. Their candidate was the incumbent Attorney General Jack Conway, who, while defeated by Rand Paul in an embarrassing 2010 Senate race, had rebuilt a national profile.

Furthermore, Republicans seemed to have nominated a weak candidate in Matt Bevin, who had narrowly defeated current Congressman and then-Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, the GOP’s only elected state-level official at the time.

Facing a candidate (Bevin) who had never held office and was on poor terms with Mitch McConnell after challenging him in a primary the year before, Democrats were confident. Bevin did not lead a single poll before the election – except for the very last one, Vox Populi, which showed a tied race with a week to go.

In the end, that was far off. Bevin won by nearly nine percent, and the GOP swept all but two offices, one of which was the Attorney General, won by Andy Beshear, the son of the outgoing governor.

Bevin had a tumultuous tenure, and was renominated with only 52.4 percent of the primary vote. Initial polls showed Beshear leading him by as much as 19 percent in the early fall, but once again the race shifted to the GOP in the final week, with polls showing a tied race heading into Election Day.

This time they were closer to accurate. Beshear defeated Bevin by the smallest of margins, 0.4 percent. It was clear the result was about Bevin’s weaknesses, not Beshear’s strengths. Republicans won every other statewide office, all but one by double-digit margins.

The 2023 election is shaping up to be a mirror-image of the previous contests. In 2019, the unpopularity of Republican incumbent Bevin was counteracted by the popularity of President Donald Trump, resulting in a tied race. This year, the popularity of Beshear is being counteracted by the unpopularity of President Joe Biden, with polls again showing a nearly tied contest.

Recent history is against Beshear. The last year has witnessed elections with similar dynamics for the mayorships of Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as Governor of New York and Oregon. In each case, voters were deeply unhappy with Democratic misgovernment, especially when it came to crime and education. Democratic candidates represented the almost perfect personification of the interests that were blamed for the bad state of local government.

Unable to win a contest on local issues, Democrats instead chose to run national campaigns on abortion, attacking GOP candidates for being pro-life in New York and Oregon, while hitting more conservative Democrats in Chicago and Los Angeles for donations to Republican politicians. In each case, Republican/conservative candidates greatly outran the presidential baseline levels of support, but it was not enough.

No one expects Beshear to do as badly as Joe Biden’s 36 percent in 2020, nor Cameron to get anywhere close to Donald Trump’s 63 percent. But if Beshear cannot get to 50 percent, and the evidence from recent polling is that he was at or near a ceiling with all of the movement among undecided voters being toward Cameron over the last two months, then it is a sign that polarization has advanced another step.

That will have implications far outside of Kentucky. Three Democrat Senators, Jon Tester in Montana, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Joe Manchin in West Virginia, are up for reelection in states Donald Trump won by margins of 16 percent, 8 percent, and 40 percent, respectively. Not one of them approaches Beshear’s popularity, and only Jon Tester has consistently positive approval ratings. The loss of two of those seats would cost Democrats the Senate if Joe Biden (or another Democrat) wins, and a single lost seat would produce a Republican majority if paired with the election of a Republican vice president.

There are other elections this week. New York City Council elections will tell us about the impact of the Gaza conflict and crime on the urban Democrat vote. Virginia’s legislative elections, if they produce Republican majorities, would have greater policy implications than what happens in Kentucky. But if Andy Beshear, as a popular incumbent with a dynastic title, is brought down by partisanship, it could presage a Republican takeover of the Senate and key GOP victories elsewhere next year.

Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.

Read the full article here

Back to top button