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Kentucky's race for governor could be a close one. Here's what to watch for on election night

Beshear on left, Cameron on right
Hannah Saad
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaking at the Fancy Farm political picnic in 2023.

The last time Kentuckians voted for a governor in 2019, the margin of victory was so thin on election night that the defeated candidate, then-GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, did not concede the loss until nine days later.

This year, some political observers are expecting the results Tuesday evening to be just as close, with an independent poll last week showing incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican challenger Daniel Cameron locked in a dead heat.

Partly due to the drama during the 2019 election, Kentucky legislators passed a law requiring an automatic recount if initial results show candidates with less than a .5% difference in vote margin.

Polls close at 6 p.m. local time Tuesday, meaning counting votes from the Central Time Zone will start an hour after tabulation begins in the Eastern Time Zone.

This year voters are casting ballots in the race for governor and five other statewide constitutional offices, including attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner.

As the voting results start being tabulated and reported that evening, here are several factors to watch that may give a glimpse at where the outcomes are headed.

Comparing 2019 results to 2023 in key counties

Beshear’s margin of victory over Bevin in 2019 was extremely tight for a statewide race, with the Democratic challenger winning 49.2% of the vote to Bevin’s 48.8% – and just more than 5,000 votes separating the two.

With such a small margin of victory, the 2019 race results give us a serviceable framework to forecast which way the governor’s race may be leaning on Tuesday as the votes come in, based on how Beshear and Cameron perform in certain key counties and regions.

Here are some regions to watch:

Jefferson and Fayette counties

Kentucky’s two most populous counties went for Beshear in 2019, as expected, but it was the staggering margins there that made his victory possible.

Beshear picked up roughly two-thirds of the vote in both Jefferson and Fayette counties that election, with his margin of victory nearly reaching 100,000 votes in Louisville and more than 36,000 votes in Lexington.

With these two counties making up nearly a quarter of Kentucky’s total registered voters, Beshear is looking to maintain or improve upon those margins, but if Cameron is able to outperform Bevin here from 2019 – or if turnout in the counties fades – this could be a large setback for his reelection chances.

Jefferson County is the big place to watch, as the Republican candidate for mayor of Louisville picked up 46% of the vote last year, winning a much larger portion of precincts in the south and east ends of the city than usual – an outcome Cameron’s campaign wants to emulate.

Northern Kentucky

Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in northern Kentucky – just south of Cincinnati – are home to nearly 10% of registered voters in the state, and could once again provide a key to victory in the race for governor.

Typically a stronghold for Republican candidates, Beshear picked up narrow victories in Kenton and Cambpell counties in 2019, winning by 1.3% and 5.6%, respectively, at a margin of 2,308 votes.

But to the west of the two is Boone County, home of the fourth-most registered voters in Kentucky and a reliably-strong area for Republicans. Bevin was able to beat Beshear by 15 percentage points in 2019, a margin of just more than 6,000 votes – which Cameron’s campaign will hope to improve upon Tuesday.

Outside Lexington

A couple of moderately-sized counties outside of Lexington served somewhat as bellwethers for the rest of the state in 2019, with Beshear edging Bevin by roughly half a percent in each.

In Madison County to the south, Beshear picked up 15,017 votes that year, just 74 more than Bevin. In Scott County to the north, Beshear bested Bevin by half a percentage point and just 97 votes.

Who comes out on top in these counties on Tuesday – and by how much – could be a good indicator of where this race is going, in addition to Boyle County to the west, where Bevin had just four more votes than Beshear in 2019.

Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky

Beshear was able to out-perform Cameron across much of rural Kentucky when it comes to fundraising, but we’ll see if he’s able to translate that into political victories.

In the western part of the state, two counties to watch are Warren and Henderson, where Beshear was able secure victories in 2019 by a few percentage points, at a margin of nearly 1,700 votes.

In the east, Beshear was able to pick up 10 Appalachian region counties in his last race, areas that used to be reliably Democratic but increasingly vote Republican.

Tuesday night, we’ll not only see if Cameron is able to flip any of those counties back to the Republican column (Floyd, Rowan, Boyd, Elliot, Carter, Magoffin, Wolfe, Bath, Breathitt and Knott), but if Beshear’s performance in office was able to reverse the deep red trend of counties hit hard by the deadly flooding, such as Letcher and Perry.

Who is turning out to vote?

A tight race between Beshear and Cameron could come down to which party was able to drag more of their registered voters out to the polls to cast a ballot.

Though we won’t have final turnout totals until all the votes are counted, we may get a sense of who has an advantage based on early reports from counties on how many have voted – with Beshear needing high levels in counties like Jefferson and Fayette, and Cameron relying on numerous rural GOP strongholds.

What we do know now is that among early voters who have already cast a ballot in 2023, Democrats are turning out in higher numbers than Republicans, and at a higher rate than in the 2022 general election.

During the three days of early, in-person voting – Thursday, Friday and Saturday, last week – 260,324 people cast a ballot. Of those, 51.2% were Democrats and 43.2% were Republicans.

This was a reversal of the trend from these same three days of early voting in the 2022 general election, where Republicans bested Democrats by 1.4 percentage points. Compared to 2022, Democrats had 15,593 more no-excuse early voters last week, while Republicans had nearly 9,000 fewer voters.

Including all forms of early voting – absentee ballots, excused in-person voting and no-excuse in-person voting – Democrats led Republicans with 160,994 votes cast, nearly 30,000 more than registered Republicans. This amounted to Democrats having an early voting turnout margin of nearly 10 percentage points over Republicans, and an improvement of 8 percentage points from that same period in 2022.

However, the large majority of those who vote in this year’s election will cast their vote on Election Day, as 77% did so that day in 2022.

Secretary of State Michael Adams has projected a total turnout of 42% – similar to 2019 – with nearly 9% of registered voters already casting an early vote.

Can down-ballot Democrats ride Beshear’s coattails?

The only bright spot for Democrats in 2019 was Beshear’s victory, as he did not provide much of a coattail effect for the five other down-ballot Democrats who lost their races.

While Democratic secretary of state candidate Heather French Henry, a former Miss America title holder, had enough of her own name identification and spending to come with 5 percentage points of Republican Michael Adams that year, every other Democrat on the ballot lost by margins ranging from 15 to 21 percentage points.

If Beshear wins by a significant margin over Cameron, it will be notable to see if he’s pulling any Democrats into contention with him, particularly attorney general candidate Pamela Stevenson, who has had support in the form of outside PAC spending in her race against Republican Russell Coleman.

Are we heading to a statewide, 120-county recount?

A provision was quietly tucked into a 2021 voting reform omnibus bill in 2021 that required a statewide recount of the vote in every county where the margin between the top two candidates was less than half a percentage point.

If law had been in effect in the 2019 race, the .04-percentage-point margin between Beshear and Bevin would have kicked off such a recount – which is a more-costly and time-intensive operation than a mere recanvass or retabulation of votes.

If we get late into the vote counting in western Kentucky Tuesday evening and Beshear and Cameron are in the dead heat that the last poll in the race suggested there would be, all eyes will not just be on who gets the most votes, but if the margin is enough to avoid such a recount that could delay a clear winner for another week.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.

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