This Race Will Test the Limits of Democrats’ Red-State Survival Strategies

The first concrete sign that this year’s race for governor of Kentucky would be a hot one came in August, when Beth Drennan’s latest grand champion, a 17-pound uncooked country ham, sold at a charity auction for the cool price of $5 million.

For the second year running, the co-buyers of the ham, along with a local bank, were a Kentucky power couple: Joe Craft, a wealthy coal-industry executive, and his wife, Kelly, a former ambassador to Canada and the United Nations under President Donald Trump.

“I thought it would go for about half that,” said Drennan, whose company has produced 14 prizewinning hams since she and her husband bought it in 1999.

Kelly Craft has since announced her run for governor, joining a crowded field of Republicans seeking to knock off Gov. Andy Beshear, that rarest of creatures: a red-state Democrat.

None of those other Republicans are able to throw around seven figures for a charity ham. But Craft has never run for office, and money alone won’t be enough to win the primary, which is scheduled for May and will pit her against more established Kentucky politicians like Daniel Cameron, the well-known attorney general.

The race should tell us some important things about American politics in 2023. How much will Republicans will be drawn into the whirlwind around Trump, whose involvement in primaries in 2022 left him damaged in the eyes of many Republicans? And can a talented Democratic politician again defy his state’s conservative bent?

Canny political maneuvering

Beshear, whose father, Steve, ran the state from 2007 to 2015, has become one of the country’s most popular governors, after winning office in 2019 over a widely detested incumbent by just over 5,000 votes.

The reasons aren’t complicated: He focuses relentlessly on local issues — like the flooding that devastated the eastern part of the state last year — talks often about his faith and tries to keep national politics at bay. He brands his regular news conferences as a “Team Kentucky Update.”

Beshear’s ideology is hard to pin down, though Republicans see him as a doctrinaire Democrat in disguise. He has supported some tax cuts while opposing others. He raised pay for state troopers but restored voting rights to felons, albeit with a lengthy list of exceptions. He issued an executive order last year to allow medical cannabis, angering Republicans, who said he had overstepped his authority.

Beshear has also vetoed legislation requiring school districts to set aside money for charter schools, though Republicans overrode it. And last year, when Republicans sent Beshear a bill barring transgender girls from participating in school sports under their gender identity, he said it was most likely unconstitutional. Explaining his veto, he wrote that public officials had an obligation to show “compassion, kindness and empathy, even if not understanding” to transgender children.

Beshear got a boost in 2021 when Ford announced plans to invest $5.8 billion to build two plants to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles, creating 5,000 jobs — conveniently located in a Republican-leaning county south of Louisville. And when Ford announced an additional $700 million plan for truck manufacturing in the state, Beshear capitalized by declaring Sept. 27 “KenTRUCKy Day.”

President Biden’s unpopularity in Kentucky — he lost the state by 26 percentage points in 2020 — will complicate Beshear’s re-election hopes. When The Associated Press interviewed Beshear in December, he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in having Biden campaign for him.

“This campaign isn’t going to be about national figures,” Beshear said. “It’s going to be about the people of Kentucky.”

But he avoided getting drawn into an extended discussion of whether he thought Biden was doing a good job, telling his interviewer, “There are things that I think have been done well, and there are things that I wish would have been done better.”

Potential weaknesses

Beshear’s approach is very much in line with how national Democrats think about how to win in red states — with Gov. Laura Kelly’s re-election last year in Kansas being a recent example.

“Getting things done for people, having a real tangible record of success, is really good politics,” Marshall Cohen, the longtime political director of the Democratic Governors Association, said in a recent podcast interview. “You’ve got to show up, you’ve got to talk about issues that people care about, and you have to create a brand for yourself that’s not just D and R.”

Beshear “has not made a ton of mistakes,” Tyler Glick, a Republican public affairs consultant in Kentucky, told me. But he predicted that the governor’s handling of the pandemic would be a problem, and in particular his decision to have state troopers monitor church attendance in April 2020 when several churches moved to ignore the state’s stay-at-home order.

The struggle to overhaul the state’s computer system for processing unemployment insurance could also hurt Beshear, said Tres Watson, a former spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Beshear is set to join Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky this week as the two Washington leaders promote last year’s infrastructure bill, which included $1.64 billion for a long-stalled upgrade of a dilapidated bridge spanning the Ohio River between Kentucky and Cincinnati.

McConnell has called securing the federal money for the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project “one of the bill’s crowning accomplishments.” Beshear, who had vowed to fund the improvement without tolls, hailed it as an example of “what’s possible when we prioritize people over politics.”

And for Biden, the Kentucky visit is the latest of his trips to promote the infrastructure bill — and, just as importantly, to position the president as a pragmatist who is willing to work with Republicans on popular, meat-and-potatoes issues. As it happens, the northern tip of Kentucky is a swing area; Beshear won two out of three counties there in 2019.

Daniel Cameron, left, Kentucky’s attorney general, with Senator Mitch McConnell at a rally in Lexington in 2019. Cameron is one of the leading candidates in this year’s Republican primary for governor.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

A crowded G.O.P. field

The Republican primary has been fairly tame — but that is likely to change.

“You throw six, seven people in a pot and start stirring it around, crazy things can happen,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime Kentucky political hand who is neutral in the race.

Craft will be competing against Cameron, a protégé of McConnell who has already secured Trump’s endorsement; Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who has a large network of supporters across the state; and at least eight others so far.

Craft was endorsed immediately by Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Beshear’s campaign blasted her as “an out-of-touch billionaire” who would “likely spend millions and millions of dollars to try to convince Kentuckians she cares about them.” Craft and her husband have given generously to Republican candidates and committees over the years.

Just before the holidays, Kentucky circles were buzzing about the decision by Savannah Maddox, a far-right state lawmaker, to drop out of the race. Some thought it signaled that former Gov. Matt Bevin, whom Beshear defeated in 2019 and occupies a similar “liberty” lane in Kentucky Republican politics, might jump in. The deadline for entering the race is Friday, and speculation about Bevin’s intentions is rampant.

Cameron burst onto the national scene in 2020, drawing gushing reviews from Republicans when he delivered a sharp attack on Democrats and Biden — linking them to what he cast as the excesses of the social justice protests that swept the country after the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.

“The politics of identity, cancellation, and mob rule are not acceptable to me,” Cameron, who is Black, said at the time. “Republicans trust you to think for yourselves and to pursue your American dream however you see fit.”

Some thought Cameron might wait until McConnell’s retirement to run for Senate, but he instead jumped into the governor’s race. He has used his platform as attorney general to draw a sharp contrast with Beshear on abortion rights and the pandemic.

But Trump’s endorsement of Cameron did not scare off Craft, who is already raising more money than anyone else in the field. According to the first report filed to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, she raised just over $750,000 during the three months that ended on Sept. 30, while Cameron had brought in a little over $400,000 — putting him behind Quarles, who raised nearly $560,000. (Beshear raised more than $1 million.)

Craft is the only Republican who has done any advertising so far. Her first television spot, titled “Where I’m From,” introduces her as an authentic child of rural Kentucky whose life path has taken her from a small-town upbringing “to the University of Kentucky, to the boardroom and all the way to the United Nations.”

It shows footage of Craft with Trump, who chose her for two ambassadorships, but doesn’t linger on their connection — nor does she mention his name. “People said I was just some small-town girl,” she says, “but my dad showed me that it’s where I’m from that got me to where I am today.” (Craft hosted a fund-raising event for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida at her home in 2021, raising the interesting prospect that he might wade into the Republican primary in Kentucky.)

Kentucky has been a red state for years, but only recently did voter registration trends catch up with reality. Republicans now make up 45.5 percent of the electorate, versus 44.6 percent for Democrats, according to the secretary of state.

More ominously for Beshear, Republicans flipped five state legislative seats in 2022, including a blowout defeat of State Representative Angie Hatton, a rural Democrat who was one of the party’s leaders. But ousting a well-funded, popular governor is another matter. Beshear’s seasoned team figures he needs to win at least 20 percent of the Republican vote to survive; Democratic polling has found that Beshear has a 40 percent approval rating among Republicans.

“Andy Beshear is going to be difficult to be beat,” Jennings said. “I don’t think any Republican should be under any illusion that this should be an easy victory.”

What to read

  • Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, fell short in the first three votes in his bid to become speaker. The House will return at noon Wednesday. Follow live updates.

  • As Nancy Pelosi’s time as speaker comes to a close, Carl Hulse takes stock of a leader whose “presence will be felt for years in the climate, health care, public works and social legislation she ushered through to signatures by two Democratic presidents.”

  • Jennifer Medina reports from Florida, where influential Hispanic evangelical pastors are carefully eyeing the 2024 rivalry between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

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