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GOP support for Beshear key to reelection, Kentucky turnout data shows

Kentucky voters head to the polls early to cast their ballots in the 2023 elections at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.
Justin Hicks
/
LPM
Kentucky voters head to the polls early to cast their ballots in the 2023 elections at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.

New election statistics show registered Republicans turned out to vote in Kentucky’s election last month at a slightly higher rate than Democrats — a clear indication that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear secured a path to victory by convincing GOP voters to break ranks.

The Kentucky State Board of Elections released their final turnout numbers last week breaking down how many registered voters of each party cast a ballot in each county.

Initial election results showed turnout in the race for governor was low with 38% of registered voters casting a ballot — well below the 44% who voted in the 2019 election.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron lost to Beshear by 5 percentage points. Some in his party blamed that disappointing finish on a lack of relative enthusiasm, or turnout, among GOP voters.

However, new statistics show Republicans had a slightly higher turnout rate than Democrats. Around 40% of registered Republicans voted in the election beating out registered Democrats who turned out at 39.6%.

That turnout rate is even more pronounced when factoring in the total number of voters who cast a ballot as Republicans now have a clear plurality of registered voters.

This is a seismic shift from just four years earlier when Democrats made up a majority of voters. It’s also a closing chapter in a 40-year-long transition of political power from Democrats to Republicans in Kentucky.

This year Beshear managed to pick up 89,000 more votes than the number of Democrats who turned out to vote.

Conversely, Cameron received 15,000 fewer votes than the number of Republicans who voted.

Party Turnout & Governor's Race Results

Republicans Who Voted641,203
Daniel Cameron (R) Total Votes626,196
Democrats Who Voted604,368
Andy Beshear (D) Total Votes693,370

In the closing months of the campaign, Cameron made a concerted effort to nationalize the race. He heavily emphasized his support of, and endorsement from, former President Donald Trump, as well as Beshear’s support for Democratic President Joe Biden.

But Beshear’s campaign countered that message over the summer with TV ads that touted his support from Republican voters. The campaign’s messaging further portrayed him as being above petty partisan fights centered in Washington D.C.

The final turnout statistics broken down by party and county provide telling evidence that Beshear’s strategy connected with enough GOP voters to give him a second term, even as Republican candidates won down ballot.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican who breezed to reelection with 61% of the vote down the ballot, said the results at the top of the ticket show GOP voters may no longer act as monolith as they become the majority, just as Democrats before them.

While GOP candidates have for decades assumed they could pick off conservative Democratic voters — whereas Republicans will vote straight ticket — Adams said the results of the governor race “kind of puts the lie to that notion that there's just one party like that.”

“I think part of growing and becoming, not a majority party, but a plurality party, is Republicans are now more diverse than they were before and they split their tickets,” Adams said.

More Republican voters in Kentucky doesn’t translate to more Cameron votes

Republicans turning out to vote at a slightly higher rate than Democrats is more than just a question of percentages — registered Republicans are finally greater in total numbers.

Forty years ago, Democrats made up nearly 70% of registered voters in Kentucky. Republicans slowly chipped away at that number until Democrats finally fell below 50% in 2018.

In the 2019 election, voters in both parties turned out at a nearly identical rate (just under 46%), but Democrats still made up 48% of registered voters and more than half of the share that voted in the general election. This meant nearly 100,000 more Democrats voted than Republicans, who made up 42.5% of registered voters.

Beshear was able to win a close race that year over Republican incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin, despite receiving fewer votes than the number of registered Democrats who voted and Bevin netting more votes than Republican voters.

This year, the tables turned.

Republicans are now 46% of registered voters and made up more than 48% of those who voted in 2023, with Democrats making up nearly 44% of registered voters and 45.5% of the vote this year.

Though registered independents have grown to 10% of voters, they only had a 22.8% turnout rate in 2023, with their 81,000 voters making up just 6% of the total vote.

Republicans turning out at a slightly higher rate than Democrats this year led to easy victories for the other five GOP statewide candidates down the ballot. They received significantly more votes than the number of Republican voters — continuing the trend of picking off those same legacy Democratic voters, who passed on their own candidates.

Republicans who voted641,203
Russell Coleman (R) votes
Attorney General 
752,692
Michael Adams (R) votes
Secretary of State
785,237
Allison Ball (R) votes
State Auditor
783,217
Jonathan Shell (R) votes
Agriculture Comm.
763,468
Mark Metcalf (R) votes
State Treasurer
735,522
Democrats who voted604,368
Pamela Stevenson (D) votes
Attorney General
544,748
Buddy Wheatley (D) votes
Secretary of State
510,090
Kimberley Reeder (D) votes
State Auditor
505,924
Sierra Enlow (D) votes
Agriculture Comm.
522,521
Michael Bowman (D) votes
State Treasurer
549,461

But at the top of the ticket, a new trend emerged: a Democratic candidate consolidated support in most of the state while picking off many of those proliferating GOP voters in key counties.

Adams said a common remark at Republican campaign events this year was that they now outnumbered Democrats and only needed to turn their base out to win, “and unfortunately, it's a little more complicated than that.”

“Beshear wasn't swept in by the independents, they were a pretty modest proportion of the electorate,” Adams said. “He was elected by Republicans. Not a lot of them, but obviously enough of them.”

County turnout shows Cameron underperforming with GOP in key areas

Breaking turnout down by counties in the 2023 election generally shows parties that had a registration advantage also had an accompanying advantage in turnout rate.

However, Republicans were still able to turnout registered voters at a rate that was better than Democrats in 94 counties despite having a registration advantage in just 71 of the 120 counties.

Looking at the raw number of voters who turned out, Democrats had a huge advantage in the most populous Jefferson and Fayette counties where nearly 100,000 more Democrats voted than Republicans.

Republicans had a turnout advantage in their typical northern Kentucky stronghold of Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties, where 23,000 more Republicans turned out than Democrats. The GOP also had a nearly identical turnout advantage in Pulaski and Laurel counties, two south-central counties that are part of the roughly two dozen counties of the region known as the “Old Fifth” – where Republicans have long dominated in both party registration and voting.

However, when Cameron’s performance is compared to his party’s turnout in the aforementioned regions, this is where GOP defections to Beshear are the most glaring.

Cameron was able to receive more votes than the number of registered Republicans who voted in a slight majority of counties — mostly ones in the west and east where legacy Democrats still give them a registration advantage.

Cameron’s strongest overperformance in this area were the dozen Democratic-majority counties stretching in a line from Pike County in the southeast up through Appalachia to Bracken County in the north.

However, Cameron also underperformed relative to his party’s turnout in other key areas while receiving fewer votes than down-ballot Republicans in every county.

In Fayette and Jefferson counties, Cameron received 11,000 fewer votes than the total number of Republicans who voted, while Republican attorney general candidate Russell Coleman comfortably received 19,000 more votes than the total of his party who turned out.

The trend of Cameron’s inability to consolidate the Republican vote continued in traditional GOP strongholds where he received fewer votes than the number of Republicans who voted in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties, while Coleman received more votes. The same outcome occurred in highly-populated Warren, Oldham, Scott and Madison counties.

While Cameron won by large margins over Beshear in the south-central counties of the Old Fifth, he still picked up significantly less votes than the number of Republicans who voted in most of those counties. Coleman was close to even in most of the Old Fifth counties, receiving more votes than the number of Republicans who voted in all but 21 counties.

Just as Cameron’s performance lagged behind that of Coleman and other down-ballot Republicans, so too did the performance of down-ballot Democratic candidates when compared to Beshear.

Beshear picked up more votes than the number of Democrats who voted in 71 counties, including large margins in Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky. Meanwhile, Democratic attorney general candidate Pamela Stevenson, who lost to Coleman by 16 percentage points, only did so in 26 counties.

Most of the counties where Stevenson picked up more votes than Democratic voters were in the Old Fifth, where she still lost by a wide margin and placed well behind Beshear — picking up only half of the governor’s vote total in Clay and Leslie counties.

From 2019 to 2023, turnout shifts did not mirror voting shifts

As previously reported by Kentucky Public Radio, Beshear was able to increase his margin of victory from 2019 to 2023 by improving his performance in nearly every region.

In 2023, the governor won by larger margins in urban areas and flipped counties he lost in 2019. Even in rural areas where he lost again, he still improved to decrease his margin of defeat.

But when looking at the county shifts in partisan turnout from 2019 to 2023, they do not closely resemble the shifts in Beshear’s vote margins —another sign that turnout was not the main factor in his victory.

For example, Beshear significantly overperformed from 2019 to 2023 in many western Kentucky counties, winning Henderson and Daviess counties, while performing better in defeat in all counties south and west of those two.

However, this region is also home to Republicans’ greatest upward shift in the voter turnout rate from 2019 to 2023 relative to that of Democrats — another sign that more Republicans voting didn’t necessarily mean Beshear’s performance would suffer.

Likewise, there was barely any shift in partisan turnout margin in highly-populated counties where Beshear ended up building up larger margins of victory in 2023 such as Jefferson, Fayette, Boone, Kenton and Campbell.

In fact, Republicans slightly improved their turnout rate relative to Democrats in Jefferson County, as well as Oldham and Warren counties, where Beshear improved from 2019.

One area where a shift in turnout did correlate with a shift in the vote from 2019 to 2023 was in Letcher and Perry counties, part of Appalachia that was devastated by 2022 flooding.

These counties were home to two of Beshear’s largest positive shifts in vote margin this year, but also saw significant shifts towards Democrats in turnout rate.

However, this turnout shift wasn’t due to any apparent boost in Democratic enthusiasm in Letcher and Perry, as their turnout actually decreased by roughly 8 percentage points — but was less than the 15 and 11-point decrease in turnout rate among Republicans in the two counties, respectively.

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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.
Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.