FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Fresh off landing a record-shattering economic development deal with Ford Motor Co. that put Kentucky at the forefront of the green energy movement, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Friday launched a reelection run that will be tied to his aggressive actions to combat COVID-19 in his rapidly reddening state.
Still two years away from voters delivering a verdict on his pandemic-plagued term, Beshear filed paperwork allowing him to raise and spend money on his 2023 reelection bid. The 43-year-old governor faces a bruising campaign in a state dominated by Republicans eager to rip into his coronavirus-related restrictions during much of the pandemic.
In a social media post, the governor said: “There are so many challenges facing our Commonwealth. Kentuckians are counting on me to deliver, and I won’t let them down.”
Eric Hyers, the governor's 2019 campaign manager and adviser to his reelection effort, called Beshear a “game-changing” governor and said the filing was “the first step in a long campaign.”
“He's going to be a two-term governor because Kentuckians know he has the guts to make the tough calls, and he always puts the people of the commonwealth ahead of his own political interests,” Hyers said.
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman will be Beshear's running mate again in 2023, Hyers said.
Beshear, a former state attorney general and the son of former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a baggage-laden incumbent, in 2019. He faces another formidable challenge and now has his own record to defend.
Several Republicans are weighing bids to unseat Beshear in 2023. They include former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Sen. Max Wise and state Rep. Savannah Maddox. State Auditor Mike Harmon already announced he’s in the race.
Beshear maintained a high profile during the pandemic with his frequent news conferences. But he's tried to turn the corner from the public health crisis to focus on Kentucky's economic rebound, which got the kind of dramatic jolt this week that governors dream about.
On Monday, Ford announced it will build twin battery plants at Glendale, Kentucky, in a joint venture with its battery partner, SK Innovation of South Korea, to help power the automaker's next generation of electric vehicles. The $5.8 billion Kentucky project, paired with another massive project in neighboring Tennessee, will create 5,000 jobs in the Bluegrass State, along with the potential for many more from suppliers. It's Kentucky’s single largest-ever economic development project.
Beshear basked in the legacy-building announcement at a Tuesday celebration, where Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford declared: “It’s really because of the leadership of the governor that we’re here today.”
But Beshear has faced withering criticism from Republicans for his past actions to combat the pandemic, from his mask mandates to strict capacity restrictions on businesses to try to curb the virus's spread. The GOP-led legislature responded by limiting the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose the restrictions. Republicans also blamed him for the long waits tens of thousands of Kentuckians endured in seeking unemployment aid.
State Republican Chairman Mac Brown said Friday that Beshear has a clear record of “executive overreach” and mismanagement of unemployment insurance, adding that “Kentuckians deserve a better way than what the Beshear administration has to offer.”
Beshear says his pandemic actions saved lives and for months Kentucky's numbers supported that claim in comparison to nearby states that took a less aggressive approach. He acknowledged the unemployment insurance fiasco but said budget and staffing cuts hobbled the unemployment insurance system long before he took office.
The coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 8,800 Kentuckians.
Scott Jennings, a Kentuckian and former adviser to Republican President George W. Bush, sees the still-distant race as a toss-up and said Republicans should not underestimate the governor.
“Beshear is not going to be a pushover to beat,” Jennings said. “I think there are some Republicans who think this is a foregone conclusion because of how Republican the state is, but it will be a tough race. ... The Beshears are good at holding on to political offices.”
Beshear's pandemic record will provide fodder for Republicans, but the election “is a long way away and it is hard to know how top of mind it will be for voters at the time,” he said.
“If the GOP can nominate someone even slightly less detestable than Matt Bevin, the party has more than a fighting chance of unseating the incumbent,” Jennings said.
The combative Bevin was weakened politically by a series of self-inflicted wounds, highlighted by a feud with teachers who opposed his efforts to revamp the state’s woefully underfunded public pension systems. Despite his missteps, he only lost by a few thousand votes.
Democrat Mike Ward, who formerly served in Congress and Kentucky's legislature, predicted Beshear's handling of the pandemic, plus the Ford announcement, will put him in a strong position.
“Good government is good politics," he said.
Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press