Al Cross: Beshear is no longer an underdog, but he’s not the favorite, either

When Gov. Andy Beshear was sworn in three years ago Saturday, he was a fluke, elected by just 5,136 votes (less than 0.4% of the total) due to controversial utterances by incumbent Matt Bevin. Republicans won all the other statewide offices going away, including a first-time candidate who defeated a former Miss America.

Three months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Beshear declared an emergency, followed public-health advice, locked down the state, and had daily briefings that reached Kentuckians in a way no governor ever had. Most gave him good marks, even after he sparked Republican criticism by having police put quarantine notices on cars at the few churches that defied him and held in-person Easter services.

More than anything else, Beshear’s pandemic presence – ubiquitous but not overweening, sometimes clunky but rarely officious, and casting a look of calm confidence – won him the approval of voters who may have known less about him on Election Day than about his father, Steve Beshear, governor in 2007-2015.

Beshear, 45, remains the nation’s second-youngest governor, and after seven years in statewide office (four as attorney general) he occasionally sounds like a suburbanite still getting used to rural Kentucky; last month, he called Estill County’s No. 2 town “RaVEEna” rather than “RaVENNa.”

But what counts for voters is that he shows up in Ravenna and dozens of other places like it, often to show leadership in disasters like the Western Kentucky tornadoes of a year ago and the Eastern Kentucky flooding of last summer. A veteran Washington reporter who was at Beshear’s appearance with President Biden in Breathitt County volunteered to me privately how impressed he was with how Beshear carried himself, and wondered if he should be listed among Democratic presidential alternatives.

No. Beshear is seeking re-election next year, and the presidential race will be well underway when Kentuckians vote next November. But if he wins, he might fit the mold of Democrats looking for a moderate in 2028.

If he wins? That’s now a firm possibility, but this observer sees no favorite in the general election. Most Kentuckians now think of themselves as Republicans, the party has a plurality in voter registration, and Donald Trump whipped Biden by 26 points in the state.

That said, Trump will have less punch next year, maybe a lot less. His 2024 campaign is off to a bad start, and he was slipping in polls even before his anti-Constitution statement displayed his fascist tendencies. He has endorsed state Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the Republican primary, but Cameron is the state’s top law officer, so that partnership doesn’t parse.

Trump could also be for Kelly Craft, whom he appointed ambassador to Canada and the United Nations, and who has less name recognition than Cameron but a lot more money. Her husband, coal operator Joe Craft, is reportedly telling people that they will spend what it takes to win, but his wife needs a message to match the money. She still hasn’t answered a journalist’s question, as far as I know.

The traditional, organization-and-endorsements candidate in the top tier of Republican candidates is Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. There are so many other candidates that the nomination could be had with less than a fourth of the vote in a small turnout. That must encourage the wealthy Bevin, whose attendance at former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s state Capitol funeral made some people conclude he’s likely to run.

The prospect of Bevin as nominee of a small minority has made some Republicans think about reviving the never-used law for a runoff election if no one gets 40% of the vote, but the legislature doesn’t meet until Jan. 2 and the filing deadline is Jan. 6. (A better change would be ranked-choice or “instant runoff” voting, in which voters rank their favorite candidates and the second-choice votes are allocated to those candidates if their favorite loses; the sequential process produces a candidate with a majority.)

Beshear is running largely on the state’s economic success and calls for teacher raises and universal pre-K, but the foundation of his support is the favorability he earned in the pandemic. That alone won’t sustain him.

A recent national poll showed, sadly, that almost half of Americans agreed with the statement that public-health officials lied about the effectiveness of vaccines and masks. Kentuckians’ opinions are probably not much different, and Beshear’s recent preventive advice has been much softer than it was in the first two years of the pandemic.

The winning health issue for Beshear may be his inventive use of the pardon power to let Kentuckians possess small amounts of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It’s probably not a decisive issue for many voters, but in a close race it could make a difference. This one, like the last one, is likely to be close.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. The NKyTribune is the anchor home for his column.