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Op-Ed – Al Cross: Where do Beshear and Cameron go from here?

Kentucky voters gave Andy Beshear another four-year term as governor. What will he do with it? The answers may conflict as he considers them personally, politically, and governmentally.

The latter two are already intersecting, as the Jan. 5 filing deadline for legislative seats approaches and prospective Democratic candidates look to Beshear for support – or a qualified signal that support would come after the legislature adjourns in April.

Democrats have criticized Beshear for giving scant help to legislative candidates, but in a state that keeps trending Republican, the party’s priority had to be re-electing him. Absent that, the party would be practically defunct, since it holds no other statewide elective office.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director emeritus of its Institute for Rural Journalism. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

Now, re-elected by a relatively comfortable margin of 5 percentage points, and prohibited from seeking another consecutive term, Beshear has political capital to spend. He can raise money for candidates, campaign with them and perhaps lend them some of the longstanding, resilient popularity that was key to his defeat of Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Republicans’ legislative majorities are huge, and could be long-lasting, but as party leader, Beshear has an obligation to his fellow Democrats to help them regain relevance. At the same time, playing the traditional party-leader role – which also includes recruiting candidates – conflicts with the olive branch Beshear offered legislators the day after he was re-elected.

“Let it be a new day with a relationship with the legislature,” he said, perhaps tacitly acknowledging the stiff-arm he’s given legislators since he started exercising emergency powers in the pandemic.

Beshear reiterated his policy priorities of universal pre-K and a big pay raise for teachers, which the legislature has ignored. But those would be good issues for Democratic legislative candidates, and well-placed challengers could soften Republicans’ attitude.

That also applies to abortion. The governor also called on the legislature to add rape and incest exceptions to the state’s near-total ban on abortions, an issue that spurred his victory.

Cameron, surely wanting to avoid being seen as squishy on a central GOP issue, opposed such exceptions in the primary, then went neutral. Beshear cast him as an extremist, most notably in the TV commercial in which a young woman said she was impregnated by her stepfather at age 12 and said, “This is for you, Daniel Cameron!”

Almost 90 percent of Kentucky voters favor such exceptions, so “It was a potent message,” said Beshear’s campaign manager, Eric Hyers.

So, Beshear’s re-election could make the legislature more responsive to voters on the issue. But Republicans could follow Cameron’s lead and try to engage Beshear in a debate over how long a pregnancy can last before abortion is prohibited. That issue could be forced on the governor and the legislature if the state Supreme Court, in a long-delayed case, finds the near-total ban unconstitutional. An alternate law generally bans abortion after six weeks.

Beyond state issues, Beshear’s victory in an otherwise thoroughly red state has made him a national figure, mentioned as a presidential candidate for 2028 – or even 2024, if President Biden is forced out of the race for whatever reason. In either year he could make a logical vice-presidential nominee, with plenty of time to run for the top job. He will turn 46 on Nov. 29.

The notion of President Beshear may not have seemed plausible a year ago, but after running two disciplined, successful campaigns in a red state and an administration that has been equally disciplined – to the frustration of those who would like to know more about how he operates – he has a legitimate place in the national conversation.

But in personal terms, is that where Beshear wants to be? Maybe. He told Jonathan Martin of Politico a few months ago, “I’ve always known what’s next in my life; I don’t now.”

Beshear said last month that he would serve every day of a second term, ruling out being on the national ticket in 2024 or running for the Senate in 2026, when Mitch McConnell’s term is up.

Apparently, McConnell wanted his protégé Cameron to seek re-election as AG to set up a bid to be his successor, but when Cameron saw he led GOP polls and could get former president Donald Trump’s endorsement, he chose to challenge Beshear. Trump helped him win the primary easily, but in the general election, he seemed to shake few voters from their approval of the incumbent, baked in since early in the pandemic.

Cameron and his wife reportedly dislike the idea of him going to Washington while they’re raising young children, so he might want to make another run for governor in 2027. He, too, has plenty of time; on his next birthday, Nov. 22, he will be only 38.

The end of the McConnell-Beshear era in Kentucky politics is in sight. Who will own the next one?

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