Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) was the clear star of what turned out to be a winning night on Tuesday for Democrats.
Despite polls showing a close race in the lead-up to Election Day, Beshear appears poised to win reelection against his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, by about 5 points in a deep red state.
The win could be just the start for Beshear, whose profile has skyrocketed nationally overnight.
“I think more people are going to want to figure out what made him so special to Kentucky voters, and I think he has the ability to build on that,” Democratic strategist Matt Erwin said.
Going into his reelection campaign, Beshear enjoyed high favorability ratings that made him one of the most popular governors in the country. He also had approval from many Republicans and led Cameron in polling throughout much of the campaign.
Beshear still faced a daunting task of winning reelection in a ruby-red state that has neither had a Democratic senator nor voted Democrat in a presidential election since the 1990s. Members of both parties said in the weeks leading up to the election that they expected a tight finish in the race.
But Beshear managed to win a majority of the electorate, performing a few points better than his first gubernatorial election in 2019, when he narrowly won by 5,000 votes but failed to claim a majority.
With relatively few major contests happening Tuesday in an off-year election, the eyes of many throughout the country were on Kentucky to see who would win, and Beshear came through as arguably the brightest part of a strong performance for Democrats across the board.
Erwin noted that Beshear was able to defeat a candidate who was viewed as much more challenging and well-liked than former Gov. Matt Bevin (R), whom Beshear defeated in 2019. Bevin was an unpopular incumbent, and Republicans argued in advance of the election that Cameron should be in a strong position because he is more popular and Beshear only beat Bevin by less than half a percentage point.
Erwin said Beshear “improved his lead over 2019 against a candidate that was supposed to be a lot more palatable to general election voters.”
“He ran a flawless campaign,” he said. “Pristine. Error-free.”
Beshear’s ascent in Kentucky, from attorney general to governor, has raised speculation about his career’s future and whether he has national ambitions.
Beshear, who is only 45, is term-limited, meaning he won’t be able to run for governor again in 2027.
He has largely avoided talking about what will come next, telling Politico earlier this year that he does not know what the future will bring for him after his second term would end.
“I’ve always known what’s next in my life, I don’t now,” Beshear told the outlet. “But I’m okay with that because the present is that important.”
He told CNN on Wednesday that he is flattered by talk about him possibly running in 2028 but ruled out a run in 2024.
Democratic strategist Crimson MacDonald, who knocked on doors for Beshear’s campaign, said she is not sure if Beshear would be interested in the national stage because he is closely tied to his state. But she added that Beshear’s “style of politics” is needed on the federal level and could have widespread appeal, as it did in Kentucky.
“He is Kentucky and it’s hard for me to visualize him on a national stage because he’s so Kentucky,” she said. “With that said, watching his skills as a politician grow and grow in a way that is sticking with his authentic style … absolutely, he should be considering going on the national stage. He’s earned it and is a very good executive. And so that would not shock me.”
Both Beshear and Cameron have been seen as rising stars within their respective parties, raising the stakes for Tuesday’s election.
“He has kept his options open by winning,” Erwin said of Beshear.
Regardless of Beshear’s potential interest in seeking higher office, Democrats said his path to victory could be an effective blueprint for other Democrats as the party looks ahead to 2024.
Erin Heaney, the executive director of Showing Up for Racial Justice, an organization that looks to rally white voters to support anti-racist and progressive movements, said Beshear ran on a platform focusing on Kentuckians’ economic hardships, demonstrating his authenticity.
But she noted that he also was willing to address key issues that many Democrats might not want to address in a traditionally red state, like abortion, race and gender.
“We think that one of the lessons coming out of this is really that we need to go through and not around some of these issues and just avoiding them really isn’t the way to win for Democrats,” Heaney said.
Beshear sought to focus his campaign much on local issues rather than national storylines, which Cameron largely concentrated on, but he was open about his opposition to the near-total abortion ban that went into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
He also pushed against the ban on gender-affirming care that the state Legislature’s Republicans passed over his veto, arguing that the government should not take away the choice from parents.
“He was very strong on abortion, and he defended things like public schools and the right for people to be able to teach honest history. And I think that it made him trustworthy,” Heaney said.
She pointed to former Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath’s unsuccessful run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2020 as a comparison to Beshear’s strategy. She said McGrath ran on a centrist platform and avoided these issues, falling far short of unseating McConnell.
Democrats said Beshear cannot necessarily be described as a moderate but is down-to-earth, underscoring that his personality played a significant role in his victory.
Alicia Hurle, the executive director of Commonwealth Alliance Voter Engagement, a coalition of grassroots organizations that coordinate electoral and issue-based campaigns, said the race shows that Democrats should focus on “bread-and-butter” issues that are affecting people’s daily lives.
Beshear’s success in Kentucky could also be a positive indicator for Democrats in 2024, as the party that has won the governor’s race has also won the presidential contest the next year since 2003.
Hurle said the win in Kentucky should also be a reminder that the public wants to see candidates who reflect their values and relate to them.
“Andy really talked a lot about the prosperity that he saw coming to our state and I think folks wanted to be a part of that vision, and that’s really important to think about personally, for people want to vote for something, and not just against,” she said.
Beshear seemed to try to present this to the state in his address after clinching victory.
“This was our victory. It was a victory that sends a loud, clear message, a message that candidates should run for something and not against someone,” he said. “Tonight, Kentucky made a choice, a choice not to move to the right or to the left, but to move forward for every single family.”