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What it is like to be a blue governor in a deep red state

Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear giving his daily coronavirus briefing on 4/9/20.
Stephanie Wolf
Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear giving his daily coronavirus briefing on 4/9/20.

Kentucky's Democratic governor is leading in the polls, despite the majority Republican state political scene. Crossover governors have become an increasingly rare phenomenon outside of Kentucky.


We often talk about how polarized national politics has become, but what people may not focus on is just how partisan state politics has gotten with one party controlling all branches of government. There are a few notable exceptions to that - for instance, Kentucky, where a popular Democratic governor running for reelection this year has consistently ranked high in the polls despite Republicans sweeping other state and national races. But as Louisville Public Media's Sylvia Goodman reports, popularity does not always equate to power.

SYLVIA GOODMAN: Kathi Johnson, a Democrat, spends her time knocking on doors in her part of far-northeastern, deep-red Kentucky, talking about divisive issues like abortion and inflation.

KATHI JOHNSON: I've had people talk to me about - that this country has just gone to hell in a handbasket. They want to blame President Biden for everything that's gone wrong.

GOODMAN: But even her neighbors who support Trump are willing to consider reelecting a Democrat, Andy Beshear, for governor.

JOHNSON: When he first got into office, the tornado hit in western Kentucky, then the pandemic hit and then the floods hit. He has brought us through so much.

GOODMAN: Beshear is well liked in the state, even as President Biden's popularity stays consistently low among Kentuckians. Nationally, the phenomenon of the crossover governor, where the governor's party is different from the one the state chose for president, is growing rarer and rarer. Since 2007, the number of crossover governors has fallen from 21 to only nine.

J MILES COLEMAN: Everything's becoming a little more bland.

GOODMAN: That's J. Miles Coleman, a professor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

COLEMAN: If you're a governor, you know, you stay in the state. You have perhaps more opportunities to define your own local brand. You're kind of closer to the people.

GOODMAN: And that's been true for Beshear. He's largely distanced himself from national political agendas, and that's a message he's hammered home on the campaign trail.


ANDY BESHEAR: There are no red or blue bridges, and a job isn't Democrat or Republican. My No. 1 and overall goal, provided I win reelection, is just to be the best governor I can be for all Kentuckians, regardless of party.

GOODMAN: But infrastructure isn't controversial. When it comes to the big-ticket social issues, like gender-affirming care for minors and abortion, Beshear takes a stand. But his vetoes are overruled by the Republican supermajority legislature. What does that mean to his constituents? Democrats know that he tried, and Republicans know his veto isn't a threat at the end of the day. And that dynamic is a hallmark of the crossover governor, says Anne Cizmar, a professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University.

ANNE CIZMAR: We used to have to sort of claim to a Democratic base of voters, look, these are the things that I believe and these are the things that I support. But then it leaves him with basically a record of less controversial things to run on.

GOODMAN: Which could help Beshear win over Republican voters. But Cizmar warns...

CIZMAR: People tend to revert back to their party affiliation when they're voting come November. So I expect that the race will tighten.

GOODMAN: No one knows that better than Beshear himself, who won in 2019 by just 5,000 votes.

For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Goodman in Louisville, Ky.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sylvia is Kentucky Public Radio's Capitol reporter. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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