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Ky. Gov. Beshear talks second term, Democrats’ future and GOP legislature

Gov. Andy Beshear sits down with Kentucky Public Radio Reporter Joe Sonka for an end-of-year interview on Dec. 19, 2023.
J. Tyler Franklin
Gov. Andy Beshear sits down with Kentucky Public Radio Reporter Joe Sonka for an end-of-year interview on Dec. 19, 2023.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is looking ahead to his second term as Democrats across the country are looking at him and wondering how to emulate his political success in a southern, conservative state.

In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with Kentucky Public Radio, Beshear discussed his keys to electoral success and whether other Democratic candidates can follow his model.

The governor also discussed his relationship going forward with state legislators in the Republican supermajority and whether his budget priorities can make it into law.

Beshear won by 5 percentage points over Republican Daniel Cameron in November, despite the ongoing rightward shift of Kentucky voters and his party’s string of defeats in statewide and legislative races.

Asked what lesson his victory should send to other Democrats nationally, Beshear said his success shows the benefits of focusing on local issues that directly affect families; and delivering results without getting caught up in national, partisan politics.

“I believe if you can be focused on those things that everybody cares about and not chase the issue of the day in Washington D.C., then you can break through and people can see you not for a letter behind your name, or Team Red or Team Blue,” Beshear said.

Still, the five other Democratic statewide candidates who were on the ballot with him in November lost by wide margins. That’s also what’s happened to the party’s candidates in races for the state legislature in recent election cycles. Democrats now hold only 20% of seats in the Kentucky General Assembly.

Beshear said the failure of other Democratic candidates in Kentucky has been due to Republicans’ ability to nationalize those races, but predicted that Democrats would at least pick up House seats in the 2024 election. Signaling potential messaging in those races, Beshear said having one party dominating state government leads to policies that are out of step with most voters.

“When you look at really single-party legislatures, what you see is a move towards the extreme,” Beshear said. “And that's regardless of whether it's Republican or Democrat. I think we govern best when we have to compromise and we have to come closer to the middle.”

Asked if he will play a more active role and expend more of his considerable political capital to help Democratic legislative candidates next year, Beshear said he would be involved to help them with fundraising, but made clear that “my No. 1 job is always going to be governor.”

“The vast majority of my time is going to be spent in this job trying to better the lives of all of our people. You know, my job is to serve Democrats and Republicans, to serve Kentuckians whether they voted for me or not. And I'm gonna do that to the best of my ability.”

Beshear released an ambitious 2-year state budget proposal on Monday, but it remains to be seen how many of his spending recommendations will be passed in the 2024 session by Republicans — who had a very acrimonious relationship with the governor throughout his first term.

Asked if his relationship with Republicans would change, Beshear said much of the friction may dissipate with his reelection in the rearview mirror, as some would be less focused on withholding victories for the governor’s policy agenda.

“It's a chance for some issues that may have been viewed as a win for me in the past, to get them off the table before there's another election,” Beshear said. “Or — and I do believe this for a lot of the legislative leadership — to do it because it's right, and it can get done in the current political environment.”

Beshear also said that some of the partisan division was overblown by the loudest voices. He pointed to his working constructively with some Republican legislators on major bills regarding economic development and gambling.

“Now I'm term limited, so my hope is that we can both privately and publicly turn the temperature down and move forward and pay less attention to the one or two legislators that will say something wild or nasty,” Beshear said.

As for his budget proposal, Beshear said the most important areas of spending he hopes survive Republicans’ cutting room floor are 11% raises for all K-12 public school employees, universal pre-K and additional assistance for child care providers. Those three items have a collective price tag of $1.6 billion over the next two years.

“We have to have (raises) to remain competitive, we’re at a breaking point,” Beshear said, adding that universal pre-K for 34,000 kids would free up child care spots and “address the learning loss where it starts.”

Reporter Sylvia Goodman contributed to this story.

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

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