Kentucky Republicans search for answers after loss to Beshear in governor race
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear defeated GOP challenger Daniel Cameron by about five percentage points during Kentucky's gubernatorial election last week. With Republicans controlling 80% of seats in the legislature and all other statewide elected offices, the party is trying to figure out what went wrong.
On the eve of Kentucky’s governor election last week, many Republicans were confident Daniel Cameron’s momentum would push him across the finish line ahead of Democratic incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear in the deep red state.
That did not turn out to be the case – and it wasn’t very close. Beshear beat Cameron by five percentage points and had 67,000 more votes than his Republican challenger.
The day after the election, Fox News viewers were told this result was actually not too bad, as the race was never winnable.
“In Kentucky, let’s face it: No one was going to beat Beshear,” said Laura Ingraham, one of the network’s conservative prime time hosts. “He came within about, what, five percentage points? That’s not bad, considering the power of the Beshear family name.”
Like many Republicans back home, Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, did not feel that way at all, sensing the momentum shifting Cameron’s way in the final week.
“I thought it was winnable all along, due to the trends, and I thought we would be more successful in prosecuting Beshear's misdeeds and lack of leadership and poor decision-making in some areas,” Thayer said. “But we didn't, we weren't able to make that case.”
Most upsetting to Thayer was the fact that “a lot of Republicans voted for Andy Beshear,” as every other GOP down-ballot candidate won by the typically wide margin for their party in statewide races.
“It bothers me that he's popular, it gets stuck in my craw and I'm not gonna deny that,” Thayer said. “But we knew that he was popular and we had to find something to convince people to fire him.”
So why did Cameron fail to secure the vote of more Republicans, giving Beshear another four years in Kentucky’s highest office, when the party has otherwise dominated state and federal elections over recent decades?
Kentucky Republicans are now grappling with those answers.
“I think there's a dozen reasons why we lost this race by five points,” Thayer said.
Pointing fingers in different directions
According to former President Donald Trump – who won Kentucky by at least 26 percentage points in each of the last two presidential elections and endorsed Cameron – the culprit for the loss was GOP U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In a post on Truth Social, Trump said Cameron lost “because he couldn’t alleviate the stench of Mitch McConnell,” his former mentor who he previously worked for as counsel in the Senate.
Republican officials and strategists haven’t echoed the same line of blame as Trump – whose support of Cameron ahead of the election consisted of hyping his endorsee in a two-minute video and five-minute telephone-rally just ahead of Election Day.
While some take issue with the messaging strategy of the Cameron campaign and the PACs that spent $20 million on TV ads attacking Beshear, one former GOP candidate in the race blamed the candidate.
State Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, said Republicans were doomed by a lack of enthusiasm in the race, noting Cameron received nearly 80,000 fewer votes than former GOP Gov. Matt Bevin did in 2019.
According to Maddox – who ran for governor on the party’s ideological right flank, but dropped out of the race five months before the primary – this lack of energy was due to Cameron not driving home a clear conservative contrast to Beshear.
“We understand that Republican nominees want to moderate their message going into a general election, that's not uncommon at all,” Maddox said. “However, you do have to have the differences in order to be able to energize the base of conservative voters to show up and vote.”
A far different take on Cameron’s loss came from Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, who won reelection last week with more votes than any other candidate on the ballot – which he attributed to his campaign highlighting his bipartisan work in the office.
“Given the margin between the top vote getter and the bottom vote getter in both parties, there's still a middle Kentucky,” Adams said. “We're not as polarized as people think. There's still a center.”
Adams added that a different set of people vote in Kentucky’s off-year gubernatorial elections when compared to presidential years, and they care less about national partisan politics and cultural issues. While registered Republicans now outnumber registered Democrats, Adams noted the share of the vote won by the worst-performing statewide GOP candidate has decreased in each of the last two gubernatorial election years.
“Our vote share is falling,” he said. “And I think it's falling because we are not attracting enough of the more business-oriented, tax-oriented, bread and butter issue-oriented Republicans, and we're losing independents.”
Adams, who hinted at a run for higher office in his victory speech this year, said Kentucky Republicans need to have a “thoughtful conversation” about the direction of the party.
“I intend to be part of a conversation about how do we reorient our brand and our style and our politics and our message to win elections that are in this off year,” he said.
Anti-trans messaging and moving people to vote
Cameron deployed a wide range of talking points on the campaign trail and in his five debates with Beshear, but his campaign didn’t have a lot of money to disperse those in TV ads after using up his funding to win a competitive GOP primary in May.
Instead, the largest messengers on the pro-Cameron side were a half-dozen outside PACs, which plastered the airwaves with $20 million of TV ads attacking Beshear after the primary.
A large portion of these ads chose to hit Beshear on transgender issues, criticizing him for vetoing a bill to ban transgender girls from girls sports and another wide-ranging bill targeting trans youth – while claiming the governor supported gender reassignment surgeries for minors.
Republican strategist Tres Watson said the PACs were too focused throughout the summer on transgender issues and others meant to drive down Beshear’s favorable ratings, “but did not address whether or not he's done a good job as governor, which are two different things.”
Watson said those independent PACs failed to target specific failures of Beshear’s administration – such as thebreakdown of the juvenile justice system and inability to process unemployment claims during the pandemic – while Cameron’s campaign attempted to refill its coffers.
“You have to prove that the incumbent doesn't deserve to be reelected, and then you have to make the case you're the right person to replace them,” Watson said. “That first step never really happened.”
Iris Wilbur Glick, a Republican political strategist and principal at lobbying firm McCarthy Strategic Solutions, said Cameron had to run a nearly flawless campaign to have a chance of beating Beshear. However, the lack of campaign funds for Cameron after the primary meant he couldn’t properly test the effectiveness of his messaging – which became apparent.
“I do think it comes down to not having the resources to clearly understand what motivates voters, and even more so within that, what turns out voters for you to put you in the win column,” Glick said. “I think there was a disconnect there.”
While Republican state legislators have had success passing bills directed at transgender youth, Glick said the election results last week are a signal the party “may need to look beyond that particular issue and find something that draws people into a bigger tent,” suggesting a focus on public safety and public education outcomes.
Thayer said the PACs spent so much money hitting Beshear on transgender issues because that polls well among swing voters, “but at the end of the day, I just don't think it was the issue that moved people off of Beshear onto a Republican candidate.”
Eric Hyers, the top strategist for Beshear’s campaign, gives much of the credit for their victory to Beshear’s performance in office and messaging – but also credits the “anti-trans attacks and hate-filled politics” of the Republican side as a tactical mistake.
“I think we saw, generally, a rejection of this kind of anger politics,” Hyers said. “I think it was a big miscalculation that they spent so much time on it out of the gate, demonizing and attacking and bullying some of the most vulnerable kids in the state.”
Hyers said that helped the campaign further contrast Beshear with his opponent.
“You had one person talking about helping people rebuild from tornadoes and floods, creating good jobs and building bridges,” Hyers said. “And then you had another person with sort of over the top, unhinged-sounding messaging on transgender surgeries. And a lot of voters were like, 'What? What are you talking about? That's not a thing that's in my life, that's not a thing that I'm thinking about.'”
The Cameron campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Money, message testing and abortion exceptions hamper Cameron
Hyers said the Beshear campaign was able to extensively test its messaging before it hit the air, citing one issue where Democrats atypically went on the offensive in Kentucky: abortion.
The key ad aired by the Beshear campaign featured Hadley Duvall, who shared that she had been raped and impregnated by her stepfather when she was 12 years old, and called out Cameron for opposing rape and incest exceptions to Kentucky’s abortion ban.
Beshear’s campaign research found a surprising result: the group most likely to move their support away from Cameron for this type of ad was not the suburban, educated women that many would expect.
“It was older, non-college educated, rural, more conservative men who were the biggest movers away from Cameron on this,” Hyers said. “So these ads did not just go to Louisville and Lexington. There was not a media market in this state that did not get those ads.”
Even Republicans who have consistently voted for abortion restrictions in the past are now publicly saying that abortion bans are turning into an electoral liability for the party, post Dobbs.
“I think the abortion issue continues to work against us, with Republican women,” Thayer said. “And we see it in the polling. It's a fact, I'm not stating anything that should be surprising to anyone.”
While the emotional Duvall ad likely appealed to voters who support abortion rights, conservative Rep. Savannah Maddox also noted that Cameron waffled on the issue when he said he’d sign a bill that added these exceptions. She said that may have hurt Cameron “among the conservative voters who were disappointed to see Cameron reverse course on an issue that's very important to them, as well.”
Glick said the Beshear campaign’s significant funding advantage over Cameron after the primary gave them the ability to test such messages, noting they were able to microtarget voters throughout the state.
“The level of sophistication that the Beshear campaign was able to execute was very impressive,” Glick said. “They were targeting known Republican college-educated women on certain messaging points.”
“There's a huge price tag that comes with that, but if you have the money and have the ability to deploy those types of strategies, they are extremely, extremely effective.”
Republican strategist Scott Jennings said it was “highly unlikely” Cameron could have done anything differently to topple Beshear, noting it is very difficult to beat well-funded incumbents and Beshear’s campaign was run well.
“You know, the two things you need in politics: discipline and money,” Jennings said. “They had it and I think that's ultimately why they won.”
Sylvia Goodman contributed to this report.