Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection bid in Kentucky has emerged as a critical test of how the fight over abortion rights will shape the political landscape ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The Democratic incumbent’s focus on abortion rights – in a Republican-leaning state where abortions are outlawed in virtually all cases – comes in a race featuring cultural crosscurrents, as GOP nominee Daniel Cameron, the state attorney general, hammers Beshear over transgender issues, pandemic-era shutdowns and more.
Beshear is seeking to buck the trend of states snapping back to their partisan foundations in gubernatorial races. Deep-blue Maryland and Massachusetts last year elected Democratic governors after eight years of moderate Republican chief executives. And reliably red Louisiana earlier this month chose Republican Jeff Landry as its replacement for term-limited Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
It’s left just two states with governors dramatically at odds with their states’ typical partisan leanings: Kansas and Kentucky.
What those two states have in common: In the wake of Roe v. Wade’s reversal by the Supreme Court last year, voters in both states rejected anti-abortion ballot measures.
In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was narrowly reelected in 2022 after running a campaign against Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt that focused on the economy, tax cuts and education.
Now, in Kentucky, Beshear is similarly touting economic wins and sharing credit with the Republican-led state legislature. And Beshear, the son of a former governor, is popular – while nonpartisan public polling of the race is limited, both Republican and Democratic groups have released polls in recent months showing him ahead of Cameron.
But he is also leaning much more aggressively than Kelly did in her race into his differences with Cameron on abortion.
As the result of a 2019 law that took effect when the US Supreme Court reversed Roe’s federal abortion rights protections, Kentucky currently bans the procedure in all cases, except when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. The state’s law does not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
Beshear’s campaign has aired a series of television ads focused on the issue – including a searing attack on Cameron featuring Hadley Duvall, a 21-year-old woman who discussed the trauma of being raped by her stepfather as she lambasted the Republican attorney general for failing to support exemptions to Kentucky’s abortion ban for cases of rape and incest.
“This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” she says in the ad, looking directly into a camera. “To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”
Cameron responded to Duvall’s criticism, saying at a forum hosted by Spectrum News 1 that he “cannot comprehend just how traumatic that experience was. And my heart goes out to her. And I want her to know that.”
“But when it comes to the issue of life, look, this is a delicate issue,” Cameron said. “I was at church a couple of weeks ago, and our pastor talked about this issue in particular. We need to speak gently and kindly because it is such a sensitive issue, and there are a range of different viewpoints on the question of life. Mine happens to evolve from my position on faith and my relationship with Christ, and I think as a person of faith, I have a responsibility to protect the unborn.”
Over five debates in recent weeks, Beshear has returned again and again to the issue of abortion.
“He cannot and he will not look into the camera and tell girls like Hadley that they deserve exceptions and he will support them. These are little kids that he would force to carry the baby of their rapist. That is wrong, that’s extreme and that’s not who we are as Kentuckians,” Beshear said at a debate last week.
Cameron said he would sign into law a bill that would add exceptions for cases of rape and incest to Kentucky’s abortion law, if he is elected and sent one by the state’s GOP-led legislature.
However, Beshear said: “What you couldn’t and didn’t hear him say is that he supports, personally, exceptions for victims of rape and incest.”
The Democratic governor pointed to a Kentucky Right to Life survey on which Cameron said he opposes those exceptions.
“He signed his name. When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Beshear said.
Cameron, meanwhile, criticized Beshear for his April 2022 veto of a bill that would have banned abortion after 15 weeks. That veto came before the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade.
“His largest campaign contributor outside of Joe Biden is Planned Parenthood. So don’t be at all fooled by the fact that Andy Beshear won’t tell you what he wants in terms of limits, because what he wants is no limits and the taxpayer to pay for it,” Cameron said.
Beshear said he had vetoed that bill because it had no exceptions for rape and incest, “showing exactly where (Cameron) is on it.” The Democratic governor has also said he opposes late-term abortions.
Cameron criticized Beshear for his 2021 decision to allow a bill that required doctors to perform life-saving care on any infant who shows signs of life – including surviving an abortion attempt – to become law without his signature.
“You heard TV Andy, who tells you what you want to hear. But Frankfort Andy does the exact opposite,” Cameron said.
Outside Democratic groups have hammered Cameron on abortion too.
Defending Bluegrass Values, a political action committee backed by the Democratic Governors Association, last week launched an ad that features a woman who says she had learned at her 20-week ultrasound that her baby would be born with a serious birth defect called anencephaly, which would have prevented the child’s survival.
“We had to end the pregnancy. But if Daniel Cameron had gotten his way, it would have forced us to give birth to our child with no brain,” the woman said.
Cameron focuses on education and pandemic policies
In an attempt to redirect the race’s focus – and shift it onto seemingly friendlier ground for Republican positions – Cameron has sharply criticized Beshear over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, blaming him for student learning loss after school closures in 2020.
If he had been governor, Cameron said at a debate Monday night, he would have acted like other GOP chief executives who tried “to get their states open as quickly as possible.”
“But Andy Beshear, like (California Gov.) Gavin Newsom, tried to shut this state down for nearly two years,” Cameron said.
Cameron would not address whether he would have broken with Donald Trump on pandemic policies, when the then-president relied on health experts’ advice in the spring and summer of 2020.
“You have to do what’s hard when you’re in a 1-in-100-year pandemic,” Beshear said. “He couldn’t even answer a question about whether he would have made one or two decisions, and I had to make them every day. These were battlefield decisions.”
Beshear said he waited to send teachers back to classrooms until they’d been prioritized to receive Covid-19 vaccines. He also said Cameron would have sent teachers back to school before the vaccine was available. Beshear signed an executive order in March 2021 encouraging schools to return to in-person learning; later that month, he signed into law a bill requiring at least some in-person instruction.
“It was real, and acting like it wasn’t – acting like we shouldn’t have taken those steps – is a slap in the face” to health care workers, the governor said.
Cameron said Beshear was to blame for test results that showed large numbers of students struggling across core subjects, including reading, math and science.
“This governor, because of pride, won’t tell you that he has regrets,” Cameron said.
The clash between Beshear and Cameron over education has also focused on private school vouchers, which are illegal under the Kentucky constitution’s ban on taxation for non-public schools without voters’ approval.
At Monday night’s debate, Cameron refused to directly answer a question about whether he supports private school vouchers.
He pointed to an education plan he has touted on the campaign trail, which he said is focused on “catching up kids from the shutdown,” and asserted that he would “support primarily our public school system.”
He did not directly answer when the moderator followed up twice. Beshear jumped in to accuse Cameron of dodging the question three times.
“Look in a camera and answer the question. I oppose vouchers, 100%. They steal money from our public schools and send it to our private schools,” Beshear said. “What’s concerning is, he won’t be honest with you and answer a direct question.”
Cameron said he agrees “that we need to expand opportunity and choice” but again pivoted to criticizing Beshear for school shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Andy Beshear shut you down for two years. Your kids are behind on learning – reading, science and math,” Cameron said. The pandemic began in March 2020; Beshear signed a bill approved by the Republican-led legislature requiring schools to return to in-person instruction by March 29, 2021.
Beshear again pointed out that Cameron was not directly addressing his position on vouchers, before the GOP nominee finally conceded that he would sign a voucher plan into law if sent one by the Republican-led legislature.
“He won’t be honest enough with your viewers to say a view that we all know that he has,” Beshear said.
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