Will Kentucky’s Race For Governor Be A Road Map For What Happens During the Next Presidential Cycle?

Will Kentuckians ring the bell for a nation of sheep to follow? When it comes to how we vote presidentially the nation is not following, but another race held 12 months before the presidential election offers key insights.

In just eight short years Kentuckians effectively predicted the rise of the brash, braggadocios politics and personality of Donald Trump via our own egomaniac in chief – former Governor Matt Bevin. The Republican was elected in 2015 – following eight years of Democratic rule by Governor Steve Beshear. 

Fast forward to 2019, and Kentuckians pushed the pendulum in the opposite direction, laying a slim 5,000 vote defeat at the feet of Bevin making him a one-term governor. Bevin was taken out largely by his own doing, pointing his ire at teachers in the state slashing teacher’s pensions, school funding, and saying teachers had a “thug mentality.” 

Andy Beshear benefitted from name recognition, and the fact he wasn’t Matt Bevin – someone even lawmakers of his own party were tired of dealing with. Beshear leaned-in on bringing teachers into his fold, naming a teacher as his running mate.

At the national level, Trump became incredibly unpopular and it was a middle-of-the-road, establishment Democrat in Joe Biden that won the election. Again, an argument can be made that it was Trump that defeated himself, and not that Biden offered a vision of America. 

These parallels, the rise of Bevin and the cult of personality surrounding him, and the defeat of Bevin were accurate predictors from a diverse state. 

“It seems like Kentucky is now a pretty accurate bellwether state since Kentuckians go to polls 12 months before Americans pick a president. The commonwealth can offer an excellent insight into what’s on voter’s minds, at least when it comes to overall trends,” said Democratic strategist Matt Erwin. 

Still not everyone agrees that what happens in the 2023 Kentucky gubernatorial race will be an early look at the presidential election in 2024. 

“The elections are both insular and connected, but not repeatable,” said Republican strategist Tres Watson. “A series of events occurred over a 5-year span to create what we saw in Kentucky.”

There are only three states in the nation that will hold their gubernatorial elections in 2023, and Kentucky is one of them. The race for governor is setting up to be an incumbent Democratic governor in Andy Beshear who is facing high-rates of unemployment, an economic recovery due to the pandemic, and a partisan atmosphere to contend with in the state’s legislature. 

What will be fascinating to watch is the Republican primary and the candidates who emerge. There’s an ongoing fight for the soul of the GOP, with some in the party pushing towards Trump and others pulling away. What could emerge from Kentucky could very well be a trendsetter for national Republicans trying to figure out who they are and where they go from here. 

While Kentucky votes heavily Republican in federal election cycles, that’s not historically been the case in gubernatorial elections. 

We won’t be the first electing governors post-Trump, but what happens here could predict the attitudes of the nation when Americans do officially go to the polls to cast their ballots.