Kentucky governor flexes incumbency power in reelection bid

FILE -Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear delivers his State of the Commonwealth speech in front of a joint session of the legislature from the floor of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Frankfort, Ky. In his latest effort to ride the power of incumbency to reelection, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear touted the state's newest round of job-creation successes, honored a retiring police officer and highlighted recovery assistance for a flood-stricken region. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File) (Timothy D. Easley, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Playing up the advantages of incumbency he hopes to ride to reelectio n, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear recently touted the state's newest round of job-creation successes, honored a retiring police officer and highlighted recovery assistance for a flood-stricken region.

The Democratic governor packed all three feel-good developments into his most recent news conference Thursday. In his regular media events — and at frequent appearances across the Bluegrass State — Beshear has nurtured his own upbeat political brand. He's known simply as “Andy” across a state that has mostly turned against his political party and become a Republican stronghold.

“I think people see that this administration isn’t trying to pull Kentucky to the right or left, but just to move it forward,” Beshear said when asked Thursday about a fresh round of good polling news more than nine months before the November general election.

A dozen Republicans are competing for a shot at trying to unseat Beshear, whose approval ratings remain high despite steady criticism from the other side. He's won praise for his responses to devastating tornadoes and flooding as well as a string of economic development and infrastructure successes. His GOP challengers include Attorney General Daniel Cameron, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, state Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck.

Beshear's efforts to fend off red-state attacks by offering a steady dose of optimism come the year before national elections that will decide control of the White House and Congress. Beshear will have plenty of money to fight back, and the Democratic Governors Association has pegged his campaign as its top priority in 2023.

DGA spokesperson Sam Newton said the favorable polling stems from Beshear having “led the commonwealth through crises and delivered where it counts.”

The coming blitz of attack ads against the governor began recently when Craft tried connecting Beshear to President Joe Biden's immigration policies on the nation's southern border. Craft, who has made fighting illegal drugs a lynchpin of her campaign, blames those border policies for contributing to an influx of illegal drugs into Kentucky.

“We simply cannot wait any longer for Andy Beshear, Joe Biden and the federal government to secure the border,” Craft said in a follow-up statement.

Beshear, who has displayed a knack for strategic pushback, counterpunched by invoking the border's defenders.

At his Thursday news conference, he declared that a “strong national security requires strong border security.”

Kentucky has done its part, he said, noting that hundreds of Kentucky National Guard soldiers have been deployed to the nation's southwest border during his tenure and that a Kentucky guard member died while serving as part of the mission.

“For somebody wanting to be governor to talk about the border and to not mention the sacrifice and heroic service of our National Guard, and recognize their loss, I think is disrespectful and disqualifying," the governor said.

For the most part, though, Beshear has tried to steer clear of national politics.

His ability to “operate mostly in non-ideological arenas” has positioned him as the early frontrunner, but the GOP has plenty of room to run against the incumbent, including his personal values that are “quite liberal,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator and former adviser to former President George W. Bush with close ties to Sen. Mitch McConnell. Beshear's policy disputes with the state's GOP-dominated legislature also could become fodder for Republicans.

“He’s not unbeatable,” Jennings said. “There’s a path, but he starts the race ahead.”

Beshear's deftness at steering clear of the national political fray was on display in recent days.

As he does at each weekly news conference, the governor touted new economic development projects Thursday — this time expected to create nearly 320 jobs and totaling more than $360 million in investments. Coming off a two-year stretch of record-setting private sector investments and job growth in Kentucky, the new projects show “we are not slowing down at all,” he said.

“With all of these new jobs and new industries we’re locating, we’re getting ever closer to reversing that trend of our kids leaving Kentucky to go somewhere else," Beshear said.

During a recent visit to Pikeville in eastern Kentucky — where he announced assistance to expand access to clean water and support nonprofits — the governor promoted efforts, backed by state lawmakers, to help the region recover from last summer's historic flooding. Beshear gives frequent updates on recovery efforts from tornadoes in western Kentucky and flooding in the east.

Pointing to the state's resilience to overcome epic storms and the COVID-19 pandemic, Beshear said: “I truly believe as a state that we are turning the page from adversity to prosperity.”

At his Thursday news conference, the governor said he's plugged into issues that matter most to families — good-paying jobs, affordable health care and quality education. It's a reprise of his 2019 campaign, when he unseated the state's former Republican governor, Matt Bevin. Public safety is another core issue, Beshear said Thursday as he honored a retiring police officer from Georgetown, Kentucky.

“To all our law enforcement across the commonwealth, we love you,” said Beshear, a former state attorney general. “We care about you. Please stay safe.”

Republicans, meanwhile, aren't persuaded that Beshear can ride the feel-good vibes to a second term. They say he's simply out of step with Kentuckians on too many issues.

“Andy Beshear can drape himself in whatever costume he likes, but it won’t change the fact that he is an ideological believer in the values of the Democrat Party,” said Kentucky Republican Party spokesperson Sean Southard.