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Kentucky governor’s race will test-drive 2024 messages

<i>Getty Images</i><br/>The race between Andy Beshear and Daniel Cameron
Getty Images
The race between Andy Beshear and Daniel Cameron

By Eric Bradner, CNN

(CNN) — The biggest governor’s race of 2023 began to take shape this week, as Kentucky’s attorney general and now Republican gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron and his allies began previewing their lines of attack on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

The race between Beshear and Cameron, much like Virginia’s state legislative races this fall, carries significant implications for 2024’s elections, as both parties test-drive messages they’ll seek to use across the map next year and Democrats look for lessons about which messages connect with voters in increasingly red states.

Cameron on Tuesday emerged victorious from a crowded Republican primary – one that included the Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis-endorsed former ambassador Kelly Craft – to take on Beshear, one of the nation’s most popular governors.

The race will test whether a Democratic incumbent can survive in a deep-red state where his party’s voter registration advantage has been erased in recent years and the political environment is increasingly dominated by national themes.

It will play out as next year’s battle for Senate control looms, with a majority potentially decided by the outcomes in similar states with Democratic incumbents and Republican-dominated electorates.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, like Beshear, have all built their own brands – but to win reelection, they each will have to convince voters to split their tickets in a presidential election year.

The 45-year-old Beshear, whose father was a two-term governor of the state, defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, an unpopular incumbent who had angered many in his own party, in 2019.

Though he has remained popular, Republicans argue that his 0.4-percentage-point-victory nearly four years ago was the result of an unfavorable political landscape – one that has shifted drastically since then.

“Beshear is facing a vastly different environment today than when he ran in 2019,” Sara Craig, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in a memo Wednesday.

“Unlike 2019, Andy Beshear now has a record that he will be held accountable for by voters,” Craig said. “Beshear is a liberal who is woefully out of touch with Kentuckians.”

Cameron, 37, is seeking to become Kentucky’s first Black governor. He was once an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell but he has tied himself more closely with former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Cameron in June 2022, in the governor’s race.

“Let me just say, the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky,” Cameron said at his victory party Tuesday night.

Republicans have already attacked Beshear for vetoing a measure in March that would have banned gender-affirming health care for transgender youths and restricted which bathrooms they could use.

He said in a veto message that the bill “rips away the freedom of parents to make medical decisions for their children.”

Cameron, who has said he would have signed the measure, on Tuesday night blamed Beshear for schools that he said are “on the verge of becoming breeding grounds for liberal and progressive ideals.”

“A governor who will not speak out on these issues and will not stand up for your interests has abdicated his responsibilities to the commonwealth and is not fit to lead it any longer,” he said.

Beshear has been in the national spotlight in part because of disasters that have struck Kentucky in recent months, including a mass shooting in which one of his friends was killed in Louisville, as well as a tornado that devastated western Kentucky in late 2021 and historic flooding that left 25 people dead in eastern Kentucky last year.

He sought to pre-but the GOP attacks at his victory speech Tuesday night after he easily fended off nominal Democratic primary opposition. He touted his economic record and cast himself as a unifier.

“Right now, somewhere in America, there is a CEO deciding where to move their business and they’re considering Kentucky,” he said. “Let me ask you, is seeing people talk down our state and our economy, insult our people and stoke divisions going to help that next company choose Kentucky? Of course not.”

Beshear is set to start a statewide bus tour this weekend. His campaign argued that he has faced attacks over conservative culture wars for years but has built a brand in the Bluegrass State that makes the GOP’s task of landing those attacks more difficult.

“It’s a lot harder when you have a governor who people already know, who is popular not just with Democrats but with independents and Republicans as well – and has a lot of trust built in with the people of Kentucky,” said Beshear campaign spokesman Alex Floyd. “He is his own man, his own brand, his own governor.”

If Republicans are seeking to nationalize the race, Democrats are hoping to localize it.

A website launched by the Democratic Governors Association on Wednesday is called “Cameron Doesn’t Care.” It seeks to tie the attorney general to Bevin, the unpopular Republican governor whom Beshear defeated in 2019.

In a preview of cases likely to be highlighted in television advertisements this fall, the Democratic website highlights some of Bevin’s most controversial pardons – including convicted killer Patrick Baker, whose brother was a major donor to the former Republican governor’s campaign – and faults Cameron for failing to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate those pardons.

“It’s no surprise Bevin’s allies are financing Cameron’s campaign,” the website says.

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