Can a Democrat Running the Biden Playbook Win in Deep-Red Kentucky?

Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky is conducting one of this year’s most intriguing political experiments: What happens when an incumbent Democrat campaigns on President Biden’s record and agenda, but never mentions the party’s unpopular leader by name?

Mr. Beshear is running for re-election in his deep-red state as a generic version of Mr. Biden, promoting himself as having led Kentucky through dark times to emerge with a strong post-Covid economy.

Like Mr. Biden, he is counting on voters’ distaste for aggressive Republican opposition to abortion, which is banned in almost all circumstances in Kentucky, as well as those with good will toward his stewardship during crises like natural and climate disasters.

Yet he is doing whatever he can to separate himself from Mr. Biden, whose approval ratings remain mired around 40 percent nationally and are much lower in Kentucky.

“This race is about Kentucky,” Mr. Beshear said on Monday in Richmond, Ky. “It’s about what’s going on in our houses, not about what’s going on in the White House.”

Mr. Beshear is among the most popular governors in the country, and Democrats are cautiously optimistic about his prospects in Tuesday’s elections, even though former President Donald J. Trump won the state by about 26 percentage points in 2020.

As in-person early voting begins on Thursday, officials in both parties in Kentucky say that every private poll of the race has shown Mr. Beshear leading his Republican challenger, Daniel Cameron, the attorney general. That could suggest the continuation of a national political environment that has been favorable to Democrats since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson in June 2022 ended the federal right to abortion.

Daniel Cameron, the Republican challenger for governor and the state’s attorney general, acknowledges in his TV ads that Mr. Beshear is “a nice guy.”Credit…Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

But Mr. Biden remains toxic in the state: A poll released Tuesday by Morning Consult found that 68 percent of Kentuckians disapproved of him, while 60 percent — including 43 percent of Republicans — approved of Mr. Beshear.

Since Mr. Beshear won the governor’s race in 2019, the number of registered Democrats in Kentucky has fallen while the number of Republicans has increased. And local Republicans believe they’ll outperform polling after surveys underestimated support for Mr. Trump in 2020.

Kentucky’s voters have a knack for providing a preview of national trends. The state’s last six elections for governor have forecast presidential election results a year later.

On the campaign trail in counties that Mr. Trump carried — which is 118 of Kentucky’s 120 — Mr. Beshear tries to extricate the Biden from Bidenomics, the tagline much heralded by the president’s campaign. Mr. Beshear celebrates record-low unemployment rates, a major bridge project paid for by Mr. Biden’s infrastructure law and what he says are the “two best years for economic development in our history.”

No new business development is too small. At a Monday morning stop in Richmond, Ky., Mr. Beshear cited the recent opening of a truck stop just outside town. “We even brought a Buc-ee’s to Madison County,” he said, referring to the franchise’s first outpost in the state and a point of local pride.

Left unmentioned in Mr. Beshear’s pitch to voters is the Biden administration’s significant role in his résumé. Mr. Biden’s infrastructure law has directed $5.2 billion to at least 220 Kentucky projects, including $1.1 billion for high-speed internet and $1.6 billion for the rebuilding of the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Cincinnati to its Kentucky suburbs. It’s a long-awaited project that Mr. Beshear mentions in his closing TV ad.

Democrats on the Kentucky ballot with Mr. Beshear on Tuesday have all gotten the message about Mr. Biden.

Kim Reeder, the Democrat running for state auditor, laughed when asked if she had ever said the words “Joe Biden” out loud, then requested to go off the record when asked what she thought of his performance in office. Sierra Enlow, the party’s candidate for agriculture commissioner — whose Republican opponent is pledging in television ads to “stop Biden and save Kentucky” — said she responded by “talking about what voters need to hear and what this office actually does.”

Kim Reeder, left, a Democrat running for state auditor, with a supporter at a brewery in Richmond, Ky. Credit…Jon Cherry for The New York Times

And Pam Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said she didn’t talk about Mr. Biden “because for the last year, no one’s asked me about him.”

Kentucky Republicans acknowledge that Mr. Beshear is popular and leading even in their polling. Mr. Cameron, who is a protégé of Senator Mitch McConnell, acknowledges in his TV ads that Mr. Beshear is “a nice guy.”

The most popular topics in TV ads aired by Mr. Cameron and his Republican allies are crime, opposition to Mr. Biden, Mr. Cameron’s endorsement from Mr. Trump, opposition to L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and jobs, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

Mac Brown, the chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said Mr. Beshear’s popularity was a remnant of the billions directed to the state from the Biden administration. Crime is the foremost concern, said Mr. Brown, whose home in the Louisville suburbs was vandalized and burned last year.

“When you sit down and look at it, he’s very good at taking credit for what other people do,” Mr. Brown said. “That’s probably the easiest way to say it.”

As with Mr. Biden and other Democrats, the most potent political weapon for Mr. Beshear is abortion rights. With Republican supermajorities in the Kentucky Legislature, there’s little Mr. Beshear can do to change the state’s near-total ban on the procedure. The building in downtown Louisville that housed one of Kentucky’s last abortion clinics is now for sale.

Pam Stevenson, the Democrat running for attorney general, said she didn’t talk about Mr. Biden “because for the last year, no one’s asked me about him.”Credit…Jon Cherry for The New York Times

Mr. Beshear’s campaigning is a reversal of decades of red-state Democratic reticence on abortion politics. Where Democrats have in the past avoided the issue or watered down their support for abortion rights, Mr. Beshear has blasted Mr. Cameron for his anti-abortion stance and attacked Kentucky Republicans for passing the abortion ban. He is airing striking ads that feature a woman who speaks of being raped by her stepfather when she was 12 years old.

Mr. Cameron, who has defended the state’s abortion ban in court, now says he would sign legislation to allow some exceptions if elected.

“There’s no ads saying, ‘Don’t elect the pro-abortion guy,’” said Trey Grayson, a Republican who served as Kentucky secretary of state in the 2000s.

Last November, voters rejected an effort to write an abortion prohibition into the Kentucky Constitution. Now the Beshear campaign has found in its polling that just 12 percent of Kentuckians favor the state’s abortion ban. Mr. Beshear said he was trying to change the political language surrounding abortion away from the old binary between choice and life.

“Those terms were from a Roe v. Wade world that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said in Richmond this week. “In the Dobbs world, we have the most draconian, restrictive law in the country. This race is about whether you think that victims of rape and incest should have options, that the couples that have a nonviable pregnancy should have to carry it to term even though that child is going to die.”

Steve Beshear, who is Mr. Beshear’s father and a former governor of the state, was more succinct about where the abortion debate stood in Kentucky.

“It’s totally changed from a Republican issue to a Democratic issue,” he said.

Steve Beshear, Mr. Beshear’s father and a former Kentucky governor, said abortion politics in the state now favored Democrats.Credit…Jon Cherry for The New York Times

Just as Mr. Biden’s fate is likely to be determined by his performance in the counties that ring Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, Mr. Beshear has concentrated on the suburban areas near Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville. In 2019, he won Madison County, a Lexington suburb that includes Richmond, before Mr. Trump won it by about 27 points in 2020.

Jimmy Cornelison, a Democrat who is the elected coroner of Madison County, said people there appreciated that the state had far fewer deaths from the coronavirus pandemic because Mr. Beshear had put in place aggressive policies to restrict public gatherings and require masks in indoor spaces. But that doesn’t mean such Kentuckians share Mr. Beshear’s party identification.

“There were a lot of people elected Democrats in this county that aren’t Democrats now,” Mr. Cornelison said. “I’m the sole survivor.”

Voters who came to Mr. Beshear’s campaign rallies this week spoke of his nightly coronavirus updates in 2020, his relentless travel schedule and a general satisfaction about how the state is doing. While Mr. Biden speaks of restoring “the soul of America,” Mr. Beshear has invited the entire state to join him on “Team Kentucky.”

“People disagree with Washington, you know, but they like what’s going on in Kentucky,” said Ralph Hoskins, a Democratic retired school superintendent from Oneida, Ky., who drove through the rain to see Mr. Beshear speak under a tent in the parking lot of an abandoned supermarket in London, Ky.

Nearby, Jean Marie Durham, a Democrat who is a retired state employee from East Bernstadt, Ky., showed off a poem she had written about Mr. Beshear during the early days of the pandemic.

“He cares about our protection from death and despair; He diligently considers our safety and personal care!” she wrote.

Ms. Durham also had handy the response Mr. Beshear had sent her. He called her “a very talented writer” and wrote that he had displayed the poem in his office in Frankfort, the capital.

“He’s one of us,” Ms. Durham said of Mr. Beshear, “even though his dad was governor.”

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