An Early Look at the 2023 Kentucky Governor’s Race

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #74 | By: Ian Milden | April 24, 2023

Header photo taken from: courier-journal.com/Matt Stone

Policy Summary

Kentucky is one of three states to elect Governors in the year before the Presidential Election. Incumbent Governor Andy Beshear (D-KY) is running for re-election with strong approval ratings, but the strong Republican partisan lean of Kentucky makes it challenging for any Democrat to win there. This brief will take a look at the race a few weeks before Republicans choose a nominee.

Policy Analysis

In 2019, then-Attorney General Andy Beshear defeated Republican Governor Matt Bevin to become the Governor of Kentucky. During his time in office, Beshear has dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic and multiple natural disasters. Beshear has provided updates frequently to Kentucky residents to inform them of the latest developments and what his administration was doing to help. Beshear’s presence, crisis-management skills, and focus on issues that matter to Kentucky voters have given him one of the strongest approval ratings among governors in the United States.

While Beshear’s excellent job performance has positioned him well for re-election, Kentucky is an increasingly difficult state for Democrats to win in. Republicans have taken over most of the remaining statewide offices, and they hold supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Democrats also haven’t been competitive in major federal races in the state except for the third Congressional district, which contains Louisville. Republicans also finally passed Democrats in statewide voter registration numbers.

Republicans are currently in the middle of a competitive primary race. The major candidates for the Republican nomination for Governor are Attorney General Daniel Cameron, State Auditor Mike Harmon, State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, and Former Ambassador Kelly Craft. Cameron succeeded Beshear as the Attorney General and has the endorsement of Donald Trump. Cameron also has close ties with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Mike Harmon became the auditor in 2015 when he defeated incumbent Auditor Adam Edelen (D-KY). Quarles was elected as the agriculture commissioner in 2015, and he has strong relationships within the Kentucky state Republican Party. Kelly Craft served as the Ambassador to Canada and the Ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump Administration. Her family has donated a lot of money to Republicans in Kentucky. Craft’s campaign was the first to air ads on television, which was a necessity since many Kentuckians did not know who she was when she launched her campaign. Attacks between the Craft campaign and the Cameron campaign have gotten uglier in recent weeks. The primary is on May 16th.

Regardless of whomever the Republicans nominate, they won’t have the baggage of unpopular former Governor Matt Bevin (R-KY). Bevin alienated voters by attempting to roll back the popular expansion of Medicaid services, which occurred under former Governor Steve Beshear (D-KY). Bevin also attempted to reduce pensions for Kentucky teachers, which also prompted significant protests. Bevin also had poor relationships with members of his own party, which resulted in some of his vetoes being overridden by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Bevin’s unpopularity cost him significant amounts of votes in the 2019 election. In addition to losing Louisville and Lexington by historically large margins, he lost some counties in rural areas of Eastern Kentucky and suburban counties in Northern Kentucky that most Republicans have won comfortably in recent years. Bevin also lost Warren County and Davies County, which hold the third and fourth largest cities in Kentucky. Bevin also underperformed typical Republican margins in many rural counties, which is why he could not make up for losses in other areas.

If Andy Beshear is going to win reelection in November, his performance will need to be similar to his 2019 election win. The Louisville and Lexington areas are Beshear’s base of support, so he needs to win there by large margins and get high voter turnout rates in those areas. Beshear will also need to win Warren and Davies Counties and perform well in the northern Kentucky suburbs. Beshear will also need to contain Republican vote margins in the rural areas that compose the rest of the state. Most of these counties will vote for the Republican nominee, but the Republican nominee will have to perform better than Matt Bevin in order to win the Governor’s office this year. 

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