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Beshear attacks Cameron over abortion restrictions in Kentucky’s race for governor

Andy Beshear
J. Tyler Franklin
Andy Beshear

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear began airing a new ad last week attacking GOP challenger Daniel Cameron for supporting Kentucky’s near-total ban on abortion.

It’s a change in strategy for the incumbent, and many Democratic politicians in the South, who have avoided going on the offensive over abortion rights.

Over his political career, Beshear has rarely gone out of his way to criticize political opponents for restricting access to abortion, usually sticking to broad statements and advocating for a middle ground.

“I believe that Roe v. Wade had it generally right,” Beshear said last yearafter the U.S. Supreme Court undermined the landmark ruling that guaranteed abortion access. “This ultimately should be a rare, but legal procedure. There are reasonable restrictions that could be placed on it. I’ve always been against late-term procedures.”

But in Beshear’s latest TV advertisement, which began running across Kentucky late last week, Louisville prosecutor Erin White looks directly at the camera as she describes Daniel Cameron and Kentucky’s total ban on abortion – including in instances of rape and incest – as “extreme and dangerous.”

“Cameron believes rapists deserve more rights than their victims,” White said in the video .

The commercial comes after Kentuckians voted down a referendum that would have added anti-abortion language to the state constitution last November.

According to Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Democrats in states that generally vote Republican like Kentucky, are hoping that some voters are looking for more moderate policies around abortion.

“A lot of places have moved far too dramatically to the right. Because there isn't this federal protection anymore, it gives the Democrats an opportunity to make an argument that in the past, they didn't have to make. It was already a given,” Lawless said.

When Roe v. Wade still guaranteed some level of abortion access across the country, Republicans were able to successfully campaign on restrictions, Lawless said. But even in Kentucky, it hasn’t proven a universal necessity to win the state. During the 2019 race for governor, then-Gov. Matt Bevin touted his anti-abortion viewpoint as a centerpiece of his reelection campaign against Beshear. He narrowly lost the race.

Still, lawmakers in Kentucky’s GOP-dominated legislature have passed several abortion restrictions, including the so-called “trigger law” that automatically banned the procedure once Roe v. Wade was overturned. The ban only includes exceptions permitting abortions in some medical emergencies, which doctors have said are vague and confusing.

Angela Cooper, communications director for the ACLU of Kentucky, said that before this year she never would have expected a Kentucky politician to campaign on expanding abortion access in the state.

“People will talk about it in a way that we just haven't seen in the past, especially in places like Kentucky and in rural parts of the state and in homes. It became a kitchen table topic,” Cooper said.

Usually, Democrats are able to win in spite of their stance on abortion, but Cooper said that’s changing. An advocate of reproductive freedom and survivor of rape herself, Cooper said laws limiting abortion rights has opened up the conversation around reproductive health to people who always looked at the issue as a matter of extremes.

“I had conversations with my father about abortion last year. He's 83 years old, and we've never talked about abortion before in my life. It's just become something that people have to talk about,” she said.

People who may have answered a survey saying they don’t support legal abortions a few years ago are beginning to recognize dangerous flaws in total bans, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor specializing in reproductive health at the University of California at Davis.

“People in states with bans also are incrementally more likely to say that it's too hard to get an abortion in their state,” Ziegler said. “There may also be a shift in Kentucky as we're seeing in other red states where voters who may in principle like the idea of an abortion ban with very few exceptions, may feel differently about it once it's actually being implemented.”

Ziegler said most Americans fit in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to abortion rights. The vast majority supportexceptions for the mother’s health or in cases of rape or incest, and many support early stage abortions too.

“When you're just asking at a kind of high level of generality, ‘What do you think the law should look like?’ A lot of people will say, ‘I don't think there should be legal abortion,’” Ziegler said. “But then when there's a ban in place … the reality on the ground of a ban is much messier, and often much uglier than high level questions.”

Though Kentuckians rejected the anti-abortion amendment, they sent a record number of Republicans to the state legislature – 80 out of 100 seats in the House and 31 out of 38 seats in the Senate.

Anne Cizmar, a professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University, said reproductive rights have proven to be an issue that gets young people to the polls, regardless of party,, and she suspects that’s Beshear’s goal in the latest aggressive campaign ad.

“Any mention of [abortion access], even if it's not coming out as sort of a full throated support of abortion rights, reminds young voters that this is what's on the ballot, implicitly, for coming elections,” Cizmar said. “And so I think any kind of mention of it, about the extreme positions that have been advanced, would potentially mobilize voters.”

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Beshear’s Republican challenger in this year’s election, has said he is fully in support of Kentucky’s abortion ban and would not comment on adding exceptions for rape and incest. Cameron touted his anti-abortion stance during the crowded GOP primary, but since then, he has focused on other topics, like crime rates and transgender rights.

Cameron’s campaign said in a statement that Beshear’s ad was a “desperate attack” that shows Beshear is “losing ground” in the race.

“Daniel Cameron is the pro-life candidate in this race and will work as Governor to build a culture of life,” the campaign stated.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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