Al Cross handicaps Kentucky’s political field

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Welcome, Derby visitors! Here’s our annual handicapping of Kentucky’s political horses amid the pageantry of the 150th iteration of America’s oldest continuously held sporting event.

The political star of the Derby TV show, for about 30 seconds during the trophy presentation, is the governor. His name is Andy Beshear. That may sound familiar. He’s in his second term, and his father Steve served two terms, ending in 2015. This is a Republican state, but they are Democrats. How’s that?

As politics became more about social issues, and Republican success expanded to state and local offices in this socially conservative state, many Kentuckians remained Democrats of heritage — willing or even wanting to vote as their parents and grandparents did. And GOP leaders’ and voters’ choices for governor didn’t work out.

Former Gov. Steve Beshear enjoyed a horse-drawn ride during his son’s second inaugural parade, Dec. 12, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

Republican Ernie Fletcher got mired in a personnel scandal and lost to Democrat Steve Beshear, an old pro who understood the state — and got lucky again in 2011 when Republicans nominated perhaps the state’s most unpopular politician at the time, state Senate President David Williams, now a well-regarded circuit judge.

Beshear was term-limited in 2015 but worked hard to elect his son attorney general, and they lucked out again when GOP Gov. Matt Bevin said a teachers’ protest against him led to the sexual abuse of children and their use of drugs. About half of Kentucky’s teachers are Republicans, and they made him pay; he lost by 0.37 percentage points.

Republicans thought Andy Beshear would be easy pickings in 2023, but voters liked his performance in the pandemic, and he gained the upper hand. Then his focused campaign, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion, and Kentucky Republicans’ draconian law all but banning it, helped him win by 5 points.

Andy Beshear’s best bet looks to be challenging Rand Paul in 2028.l (Getty Images)

Term-limited, Beshear now looks beyond Kentucky. He has a political committee to help moderate Democrats like himself, and is mentioned in 2028 presidential speculation. He says he will serve out his term, which ends in December 2027, taking him out of the race for the seat of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is stepping down as Senate Republican leader but says he will represent Kentucky through 2026.

Beshear’s best bet at this point looks to be challenging Sen. Rand Paul, who is up in 2028. Paul is more of a libertarian than a Republican, and has become more recently defined as an isolationist, which he calls “informed neutrality.” A deficit hawk, he generally opposes foreign aid, and on the Ukraine issue more or less declared open war against McConnell after his senior seatmate announced he wouldn’t seek another term as leader.

Likely Republican candidates for McConnell’s seat are his protégé, Daniel Cameron, an African American who was attorney general and lost to Andy Beshear; Rep. Andy Barr of the Lexington-centered 6th District, who voted to help Ukraine; and Rep. Thomas Massie of the 4th District, who didn’t. Massie is cut from the same cloth as Paul but has woven it into the political equivalent of an audacious Derby hat, most recently supporting Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s petition to throw House Speaker Mike Johnson out of the chair.

Thomas Massie is cut from the same cloth as Rand Paul but has woven it into the political equivalent of an audacious Derby hat, most recently supporting Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s petition to throw House Speaker Mike Johnson out of the chair. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

Others in Kentucky’s delegation are less inclined to performative politics. First District Rep. James Comer, the House Oversight and Reform Committee chair, became performative after then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy surprised him with the assignment of helping make an impeachment case against President Biden. Comer is a popular fundraiser and TV talker, but has exaggerated and implied too much in trying to tell Republicans what they want to hear. He says he would rather be governor, come 2027; he lost the 2015 primary to Bevin by 83 votes.

Morgan McGarvey, abortion
Democratic U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey, left, with state Sen. Karen Berg in November 2022. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

Louisville’s congressman is Morgan McGarvey, the delegation’s sole Democrat. If his party takes control of the House, watch him; he was a very effective state Senate minority leader. A small part of Louisville is represented by Brett Guthrie of the 2nd District, who could move up to chair one of the House’s most powerful committees, Energy and Commerce. Fifth District Rep. Hal Rogers represents most of Appalachian Kentucky and is in his 44th year of funneling federal money to it. He is an appropriations subcommittee chair and the longest-serving current House member, and at 86, seems determined to keep it up.

Closer to home, the Republican to look for at the Derby if you need help in Frankfort is Senate President Robert Stivers, who is arguably the state’s chief policymaker since he is the strongest leader in a legislature firmly controlled by Republicans. But he’s not a pusher of hot buttons like many GOP legislative leaders in the South; he is a traditional Republican, close to McConnell, and has steered Kentucky GOPers away from some of the right-wing excesses seen in other Republican-controlled legislatures. He knows that while Kentucky is Republican, it still has Democratic rootstock.

Senate President Robert Stivers speaks with reporters at Goodwood in Frankfort on Feb. 6. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

This column is republished from the Northern Kentucky Tribune, a nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism.

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