The Kentucky Republican Primary for Governor Is Ramping Up---And The Early Signs Are Bad
In the wake of Gov. Andy Beshear mandating that state workers wear masks indoors, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Treasurer Allison Ball and Auditor Mike Harmon all announced that employees that work in their departments would not be required to wear masks. It would not be a huge burden for these Republicans to ask their staffs to wear masks for a while, both as a show of unity as the state tries to deal with a resurgent pandemic and potentially to protect unvaccinated people who work in those agencies from infecting one another. It would have been wise for these GOP officials to wait a few days and examine the emerging details of how Delta is spreading before taking this stance. (There was a worrisome study released about Delta today.) And if they weren’t going to actively enforce the mask mandate, they didn’t need to go out of their way to attack Beshear’s policy either.
But of course, it has become clear that the first responsibility of a Kentucky GOP official, at least in their minds, is to attack whatever Andy Beshear said that day in the most dramatic way possible. And this dynamic could get much worse. Harmon has already announced he is running in the 2023 gubernatorial election to replace Beshear. Quarles is almost certain to run as well. I expect the field to get bigger. And because of that upcoming GOP primary, I fear we are about to enter a conservative-off, a race to the right where every aspiring Republican tries to appeal to the party base by showing just how anti-Beshear, anti-expert, anti-taking-COVID-seriously that they are.
In my discussions with Democrats involved in politics here, I often hear comments like,“I have known Ryan for a long time, he’s not like the rest of them,” and “Jamie is a normal Republican,” referring to congressman Jamie Comer, another possible gubernatorial candidate. I suppose that a Gov. Comer or Quarles may not, day-to-day, be as unhinged and mean as Matt Bevin. But expecting that one of the Republicans, if he or she becomes governor, will govern in a normal way is folly. I don’t think in 2015 that Marco Rubio expected that five years later he would, in a public speech, praise Trump supporters who tried to force a bus of Biden supporters off the road. I don’t think on the day of the Capitol insurrection that Mitch McConnell thought that less than two months later he would be committing to vote for Donald Trump in 2024 if Trump were Republican presidential nominee. I doubt in May 2020 that McConnell expected that the next year he would be speaking about how 1619 isn’t that important of a year in American history, as he did two months ago while bashing the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which has become something a Republican must attack to remain in good standing with the base.
In the current Republican Party, the guardrails are off and the center is dead, so the only real push a GOP politician gets is to move further to the right. So Comer, Harmon and Quarles have every incentive to become more unreasonable and little incentive to go in the other direction. This dynamic could get worse if either or both of the state’s most prominent extremist conservatives get into the gubernatorial race: Bevin or state representative Savannah Maddox.
If one of these Republicans defeats Beshear, even one who has some Democratic friends who says that they are normal, things could get ugly. If you are a Republican governor in a red state, you are in a political environment where it is very important to be attuned to 1. What is being said on Fox News in particular but also other conservative networks and talk radio 2. What Republican politicians in other red states are doing 3. The Republicans in your state legislature. The biggest political threat for most Republican officials in red states is losing in the Republican primary, not losing to a Democrat in the general election. It is not important to be attuned to 1. The views of any Democrats 2. Reality/evidence-based institutions like the media, academia, and public health experts.
The news coming from Florida and Texas is harrowing on this front. Throughout the pandemic, Govs. Ron Desantis (Florida) and Greg Abbott (Texas) have not only mocked and dismissed those who take the pandemic seriously, but used their executive powers to prevent major cities in their states from taking actions like requiring masks. Imagine this pandemic not only with Bevin in charge instead of Beshear, but Bevin stripping powers from officials in Louisville and Lexington to take the pandemic seriously too.
I think Kentucky is on the trajectory of having a Republican gubernatorial primary that will be won by a candidate who either is already inclined to be as anti-Louisville/Lexington and anti-reality as possible or commits to governing that way to win the primary; that person winning the general election; and that person using their powers as governor to make so many changes to Louisville and Lexington that those cities cease to exist as we know them. I hope I am being alarmist, but I worry I am not.
Yes, Beshear Is going to have a hard time winning reelection
I think Beshear has done an excellent job helping the state deal with the pandemic and the few polls that have been released suggest that most voters here share that perspective. But I don’t think that guarantees him reelection, at all.
Recent elections suggest that there are about 1.2 million solidly-Republican voters in Kentucky, about 800,000 solidly-Democratic voters. So how did Beshear win in 2019? Well, in that race, about 600,000 of the 800,000 Democrats voted, while only about 800,000 of the 1.2 million Republicans did. It’s often the case in elections across the country that voters from the party out of power turn out at higher rates than the party in power. And that was entirely unsurprising in Kentucky, since Democrats really hated Bevin and Republicans were lukewarm about him. So Beshear benefited from high Democratic turnout for an off-year election, and Republican turnout was lackluster. But about 100,000 Kentuckians who voted for Republicans in other statewide races backed Beshear instead of Bevin, giving them both about 700,000 votes. So Beshear benefited from some swing voters.
You can see the problem he faces in 2023. With the GOP casting Beshear as the imperial governor, I think the GOP base will turn out in higher numbers to vote out Beshear than they did to reelect Bevin. And there aren’t likely to be as many traditional Republican voters who swing to Beshear if a non-Bevin Republican is running.
It would help Beshear if Bevin or Maddox won the primary. But that would be pretty bad news for the state, since even Bevin or Maddox would have a decent chance of winning, and they would be terrible governors.
Charles Booker might help
There is some talk from centrist commentators that Booker is too liberal and Kentucky Democrats need to recruit a more centrist person (former Lexington mayor Jim Gray, top Beshear aide and longtime state representative Rocky Adkins) to run in next year’s Senate race against Rand Paul. I think it’s possible that Booker is successfully cast by Republicans as too liberal and he loses by say, 18 points and maybe Gray would have only lost by 12. But Kentucky Democrats are always running the most moderate candidate possible and almost always losing statewide races. Republicans here are likely to cast the 2022 midterms as a way to stop the big spending agenda of Biden and get the overwhelming majority of their 1.2 million people to the polls. Even if some Kentuckians are turned off by Paul, it is hard to see Gray getting say 150,000 Republicans to back him, the kinds of numbers he would need to win.
Booker is trying to bring new voters in this process, which could change the math. This is very difficult to do, both in Kentucky and around the country. But it’s not impossible---millions of people voted for the first time in 2018 or 2020, either because they love or hate Trump. About 1.4 million Kentucky adults didn’t vote in the 2020 elections--a larger number than either Trump (1.3 million) or Biden received (774,000 received.) Non-voters aren’t generally that ideological or that informed on issues. It’s unlikely that 1.4 million people includes a ton of people who love the Green New Deal. But they probably aren’t people who hate it either--it’s likely most of them don’t know what it is. Non-voters tend to be younger, lower-income and more likely to be people of color than the current electorate, and people of those demographics tend to be Democrats.
In terms of winning Senate and presidential races in Kentucky, Democrats likely either have to get 400,000 of those 1.4 million non-voters to start voting or to get 200,000 current Republicans to start voting Democratic. (Those are equally powerful, because a new voter just goes to you, a swing voter both gives you one vote and takes away one from your opponent). Those things will both be very, very hard to do.
But if Booker even drew in 100,000 new Democratic voters, that would be hugely important for his party. He would still have a hard time winning himself in 2022. But in 2023 for 1. a person whose last name is Beshear, a popular brand in Kentucky 2. running as the incumbent governor 3. In a lower turnout election compared to a year where there is a Senate or presidential race, 100,000 new Democrats could be the difference between victory and defeat.