Andy Beshear, the attorney general of Kentucky, won the state’s Democratic nomination for governor on Tuesday. He emerged triumphant from a contentious three-way race that included a spirited challenge from his left and from the state’s House Democratic leader.
Beshear, the 41-year-old son of the state’s last Democratic governor, is due to take on Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who survived a primary challenge on Tuesday.
Democrats believe Bevin, a one-term incumbent, is vulnerable in November thanks to his efforts to chip away at the Affordable Care Act and push through cuts to the pensions of teachers and other public employees. As of April, Bevin had the lowest net approval rating of any governor in the country.
Beshear, who successfully thwarted teacher pension cuts in court, is running as a defender of public pensions, education funding and health care access.
Thanks to his high-profile battles with Bevin and public memories of his father Steve, who served as governor from 2007 to 2015, Beshear was favored to win the primary from the start.
“The mixture of two sources of name recognition allowed Beshear to mostly campaign as a modern, standard Democratic politician while still having the loyalty of the voters with whom a standard Democrat lately has been struggling,” said D. Stephen Voss, an expert in Kentucky politics at the University of Kentucky.
Beshear survived a liberal bid from Adam Edelen, a former state auditor-turned-solar energy entrepreneur. Edelen, who ran as an unabashed progressive bent on diversifying the state’s economy and taking on the power of corporate interests, shocked observers by picking up the endorsements of Louisville’s teachers union and main newspaper.
To the surprise of many poll-watchers, Beshear’s toughest competition came from Rocky Adkins, the socially conservative Democratic leader in the Kentucky state House. Adkins, who hails from mountainous eastern Kentucky and offered rural Democrats alienated by the national party an opportunity to return to the fold, was a close second thanks to a strong showing in less populated parts of the state. Adkins likely also benefited from Edelen eating into Beshear’s share of the urban vote.
Although Beshear is officially a supporter of abortion rights and he won the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America in the primary, he was vague about his position on a controversial “heartbeat bill” restricting abortion rights prior to the primary. Likewise, he acknowledged the threat of manmade climate change and professed support for renewable energy, but as recently as December 2016, he had signed a letter calling for an end to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and declined to state his views about climate change.
Notwithstanding his cautious history on two hot-button issues in the state, Voss predicted that Beshear is unlikely to prevail against Bevin if the race becomes about so-called social issues.
“What he needs to do now is convince those voters that the election needs to be about education, about families, about the lunch-pail issues where the state’s voters are not nearly as conservative,” Voss said.
Although Bevin’s attempts to gut teacher pensions and roll back a chunk of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion have stalled in court, his comments about teachers are almost certain to appear in Democratic campaign ads. Bevin responded to a teacher demonstration at the state capitol in April 2018 by speculating that some children were sexually abused as a result of the educators’ absence. And in November, the governor called for “breaking the backs” of the teachers union.
Facing Beshear, Bevin is likely to lack the kind of national wedge issue from which he benefited in Nov. 2015, when he won his first term. The refusal of Kim Davis, a county clerk in eastern Kentucky, to issue same-sex marriage licenses in September 2015 turned the race into a referendum on the hot-button issue of LGBTQ rights.
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This time, the polarizing fight gripping Kentucky is over whether to protect financially embattled teachers’ pensions and boost public education funding.
Beshear touts his own bona fides as a supporter of public schoolteachers. But he also stands to benefit from the testimony of his running mate Jacqueline Coleman, an assistant school principal.
“As a teacher and candidate for lieutenant governor, I’ve seen Andy take on bullies,” Coleman says in a television ad.