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 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 in a statement.
Beshear, 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 in GOP-trending Kentucky and now has a record of his own to defend. Several Republicans are weighing bids to unseat Beshear in 2023. They include former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, state 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 the state’s economic rebound, which got a dramatic jolt this week.
Beshear’s campaign move came at the end of a 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 to power the automaker’s next generation of electric vehicles. The $5.8 billion project, which was paired with an even bigger project in neighboring Tennessee, will create 5,000 jobs in Kentucky, along with the potential for many more from suppliers.
Beshear basked in the 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 handling of the pandemic, from his mask mandates to strict capacity restrictions on businesses. Republicans blamed him for the long waits tens of thousands of Kentuckians endured in seeking unemployment aid. 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 at least 8,770 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. Winnable, but certainly one that will require immense effort, resources. 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 running feud with teachers who opposed his efforts to revamp the state’s woefully underfunded public pension systems. Despite his foibles, he only lost by a few thousand votes, while the rest of the GOP ticket won decisively. There’s been speculation that Bevin might run again in 2023, though a scandal surrounding pardons he issued after his defeat might hinder that notion.
Democrat Mike Ward, who formerly served in Congress and the Kentucky legislature, predicted Beshear’s handling of the pandemic, plus the Ford announcement, put him in a strong position.