In deep-red Kentucky, incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear is a striking anomaly.
He's a Democrat elected in a state that sends conservatives like Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell to Congress, which voted for Donald Trump in 2020 by more than 25 points. Kentucky has only one Democrat in its incoming congressional delegation. It's not the sort of place Democrats eye for big wins; Beshear only won in 2019 by about 5,000 votes.
And yet, headed into his 2023 re-election campaign, Beshear is tasked with duplicating that sort of party-defying victory. Some say he's the outright frontrunner, having built a brand of pragmatism over the years. Others say he's a prime target for a flip.
"Republicans shouldn't be under any illusion here that, you know, just because it's a Republican state that we're guaranteed a Republican governor," said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky native and longtime GOP strategist.
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But one thing is for sure: Republican candidates are lining up in droves for the chance to run against him.
Six months out from the GOP primary, a dozen candidates have filed paperwork to run. It's a grab-bag of personalities-some Trumpy, some less so, some who're coming in with big brands and name ID, while others are just starting to introduce themselves to the public. It's a crowded field that could grow even larger ahead of the filing deadline on Jan. 6, 2023.
Although polling isn't out yet, Kentucky politicos generally point toward three candidates as the leading contenders: state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, and Kelly Craft, former ambassador to the United Nations under Trump.
Cameron, who has already snagged Trump's "complete and total endorsement" in the primary, is seen by state Republicans as a rising star. After a breakout speech at the Republican National Convention in 2020, his profile as the first Black attorney general in Kentucky and handler of the Breonna Taylor police shooting case skyrocketed.
He's also been seen as a potential successor to McConnell, should the 80-year-old Senate Minority Leader choose to retire after his current term.
"If you polled it right now, my guess is he'd be at the top of the heap," Jennings said.
But Quarles and Craft aren't seen as far behind. Quarles wins points with Republicans for running a grassroots campaign. And like Cameron, he's got experience winning statewide office before, which Craft, for instance, does not.
Yet Craft is still turning heads. She's a prolific fundraiser with deep pockets. That virtually guarantees her access to advertising that could dramatically boost her name recognition and pull with conservative voters.
But in crowded primaries like this, even less competitive candidates still matter. Not only do underperforming candidates often seek breakout moments through intraparty attacks, they can lead to widespread vote splitting. Even single-digit percentage points going toward lower-tier candidates can chip away at the chances of big dogs in the race.
Then, at the end of it all, Republicans still have to coalesce around the eventual Republican nominee. That's often easier said than done.
Sean Southard of the Republican Party of Kentucky, despite the challenges, didn't fret at the prospects of a crowd. He characterized the loaded primary ticket as an "embarrassment of riches."
"At the end of the day, the Republican Party will rally behind our eventual nominee, whoever he or she might be, and make the case that Andy Beshear doesn't represent our Kentucky values," Southard said.
Democrats are still confident that a raucous, crowded primary contest is bound to ensue-and to work in their favor.
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"A crazy, carnival-like primary on their side, I think that benefits Andy completely," said Jim Cauley, a veteran Democratic strategist in Kentucky.
"The crazier it is, the better," Cauley added.
Eric Hyers, campaign manager for Beshear's re-election bid, forecast the GOP primary would "devolve into a mad dash to the most extreme fringes of that party in order to prove that they were the true conservatives."
"They'll be all trying to appeal to the most vocal parts of that base," Hyers added.
And Kentucky politicos that spoke with The Daily Beast on both sides of the aisle pointed to a looming wild card: widespread murmurs that former Gov. Matt Bevin, who lost re-election to Beshear in 2019, might hop back in the race. Bevin lost amid a chaotic tenure, including claiming that teacher protests in the state in 2018 caused "hundreds of thousands" of children to be exposed to rape and drugs, and pardoning hundreds of serious criminal offenders during his final days in office.
To be sure, gubernatorial primaries, especially in states that have off-year elections like Kentucky, aren't the most high-turnout elections. But that could change in 2023 after governors, including Beshear, took an outsized role during the COVID pandemic. Other ongoing conversations within the political right on "critical race theory" in schools and laws regarding LGBT+ youth have also largely fallen on state executives.
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In Kentucky especially, recent natural disasters have put Beshear at the helm of lengthy and hard-fought recoveries. Flash flooding, tornadoes, and other disasters have wrecked huge swaths of the state, costing millions in repairs.
But through it all, Beshear managed to keep his footing. A Morning Consult poll released this October put him at a 59 percent approval rating-up from 55 percent earlier this year.
Still, Republicans believe they've got talking points to work with-such as Beshear's use of vetoes on Republican-passed policies from the state legislature, or his approach to shutdowns during the early days of the pandemic.
Ever-growing polarization in America is also sure to contribute as state races continue to be increasingly nationalized. As Jennings put it, "You're kind of facing off against a guy who's popular, who's saddled with, you know, the most unpopular thing you can be in Kentucky, which is being a member of Democratic Party."
But those in Beshear-land don't appear to be sweating it.
"They're all gonna have a real, real hard time, a) getting out of the primary, but b) making the case that we should have a new governor, when the one that we have is doing a really really good job," Hyers said.
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