The French have a phrase l’heure entre chien et loup, simply, the hour between dog and wolf, said another way, that time when you cannot tell if out on the horizon you’re walking up on a dog or a wolf.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has been in office since January of 2020, and out on the horizon the hour between dog and wolf is about to set –a time Beshear will have to find some serious balance between friends and foes as national politics will shift into focus as a U.S. Senate race takes center stage and rules the newspapers and the global pandemic ebbs.
“He’s a dead man walking,” Kentucky Republican strategist Brad Shattuck said, an indication of the hour of wolf and a much tougher re-election contest for the incumbent governor.
“I think the [Republican] party is going to nominate a Republican that can beat Andy,” Shattuck continued in a phone interview. “I just don’t see a scenario for him to win. He’s the most vulnerable Democrat in the country, I think.”
Shattuck says Beshear is an accidental governor, winning the governor’s mansion against a “weak incumbent” in former Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky. Republicans also have a solidly built power structure in Kentucky, McConnell won re-election by double digits last year, the GOP has supermajorities in the General Assembly, and the Republicans control every Constitutional office.
“He’s the fluke governor here,” Shattuck said.
Still, Democrats say it is tough to beat an incumbent, but Beshear will have to walk a tight rope on his messaging – especially as the Senate race brings national issues home to roost.
Right now the U.S. Senate race looks to be a contest between U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and potential Democratic candidate Charles Booker, who has formed an exploratory committee bringing in half a million dollars. The contest is far from determined as other Democrats look at the race, and Paul is not acting like he has a race on his hands.
Booker is expected to run as a far-left progressive in a very red state. The progressive ideas tend to poll poorly in Kentucky, but many Democrats are eager to see what it looks like when a full-on Big-D, Democrat runs statewide.
Jim Cauley, a Kentucky native who ran Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate race and Gov. Steve Beshear’s 2007 race for governor, said Gov. Andy Beshear would have to “thread the needle” on a national progressive candidate like Booker becoming the nominee.
“Depending on who comes out of that Senate primary [Beshear] is going to have to back the nominee, but maybe not necessarily back some of the things that he is backing,” Cauley said.
Beshear could get hemmed in on these national issues when seeking a re-election bid. While he will be able to learn the messages that play well and make adjustments, he could also potentially inherit the ideas that don’t play as sharply to rural Kentucky voters. On the other side of the 2023 race is the 2024 election, when Americans will cast their ballots for the next president – sandwiching Kentucky between federal cycles.
“The navigation will not be impossible, but [Beshear] will have to be very aware of somebody talking about national issues, while he’s trying to bring it back to how well I’ve run the state,” Cauley said. “At the end of the day, he’s done a good job.”
Former Democratic Congressman Mike Ward was even more sure of Beshear’s ability to appeal to progressives and centrist Democrats alike – indicating a thinking amongst some Democrats that Beshear will encounter nothing but a pack of puppy dogs in his re-election bid in 2023.
“Andy Beshear is in fine shape with progressives in Kentucky and will continue to be in fine shape even if a Booker for Senate campaign tends to move the conversation back to the left, come ’23 Andy will do just fine with progressives,” Ward said.
“Governing well is the best political plan for him, that’s how he did it for attorney general and that’s how he’ll do it as governor – especially because he won’t have a primary,” Ward added. “2022 will be about the national issues and the candidate’s personalities and ’23 will be about Kentucky issues again.”
One Democratic strategist said Kentuckians should remember Beshear’s handling of COVID in 2023.
“Gov. Beshear has done an incredible job in unprecedented and horrifying circumstances with the pandemic,” said Beth Thorpe, a Democratic digital strategist. “Critiques are very easy with 20/20 hindsight to say they would do it better.”
Thorpe went on to say that had Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, still been in office that the death rate in Kentucky due to the pandemic would have been higher. The life-saving measures Beshear enacted, Thorpe said are the same things that potential political opponents have used as fodder.
The state will effectively be in a post-COVID world starting June 11 when Beshear says his mandates will expire and occupancy restrictions will go back to 100 percent. Republicans are scrambling to make political hay of Beshear’s extra month of COVID powers, and in a way, some will garner additional attention and show primary voters paying attention they’re made of the right stuff, but it’s still far from nut-cutting time for those intraparty battles.
Republicans are telegraphing they will attack Beshear over his handling of unemployment in the state.
“That’s just one of the issues Republicans are going to be able to talk about – he has horribly mismanaged the unemployment system,” Republican strategist Brad Shattuck said. “We’ve had protests and lines and people complaining. If you ask any state legislator they’ve had the most phone calls this past session, and probably still continue to receive them, over the unemployment fiasco that he and his lieutenant governor have created.”
Democratic strategist, Jim Cauley says Beshear won’t have to “fall on his sword” over unemployment claims.
“It’s been a policy decision in most states to make unemployment hard to get – that’s just a fact – that has nothing to do with Gov. Beshear,” he said.
Like his father, Beshear has inherited a state at the beginning of precarious times. Former Gov. Steve Beshear took control in 2007, just as the bottom dropped out of the economy plunging the nation into the great recession. The younger Beshear took the reins of the commonwealth just as the world shifted, bringing forth a global pandemic at the beginning of 2020 and creating health and economic chaos.
If Beshear plans on relying on his governing style – think again.
“He’s done a horrible job governing, he can’t get anything passed, he’s handled the COVID situation horribly – we are the second to last state that is removing the mask mandate, second only to California, and I think that says a lot about his governing style,” Shattuck continued. “He’s more closely aligned with the governor of California than he is with the people of Kentucky.”
With two years and billions of dollars coming from Washington D.C. state Democrats are banking on President Biden to be a popular figure in Kentucky.
“Some of how he will do will be tied to President Biden, and President Biden’s success,” said Beth Thorpe, the Democratic digital strategist in a phone interview.
Perhaps an ace-in-the-hole for Beshear is the American Rescue Plan with an estimated $4.2 billion for Kentucky. The funds allow the state to respond to health emergencies, including negative economic impacts. It will also allow infrastructure investments into broadband, water, and sewer.
The American Rescue Plan cannot be used by states to fund or offset tax revenue – so we won’t see tax cuts in Kentucky. There’s also a timer on the funds set to expire at the end of 2024 – setting up a spending spree in the state.
Every single Republican in Congress voted against the American Rescue Plan, setting up a federal fight for credit.
“It’s going to be – as always – a messaging war,” Thorpe said.
With two years and power on the line, the contest is already taking shape behind the scenes.