Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear defended his sweeping COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as he faced an onslaught of criticism from Republican challenger Daniel Cameron in a high-stakes debate Monday night, coming about two weeks before Kentucky’s closely watched gubernatorial election.
Cameron acknowledged, meanwhile, that if elected he would sign legislation that included school vouchers, after being pressed for his stand on the divisive education issue.
The bitter rivals sparred over the economy, education policies, abortion and transgender issues during the hourlong debate shown statewide on Kentucky Educational Television. They were pressed to drill down on many of their policy positions during the latest in a series of faceoffs before the Nov. 7 election.
Some of their sharpest exchanges came when questioned about pandemic and education policies.
Beshear, who is seeking reelection to a second term, was asked to critique his policies during the height of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, while Cameron was pressed on what he would have done differently.
The global health crisis dominated the first half of the governor’s term, and his restrictions on businesses and public gatherings have come under constant attack from Cameron, the state’s attorney general. The virus has killed more than 19,000 Kentuckians since early 2020.
Beshear said he believed he made the best decisions he could have with the information he had at the time. Talking about the health crisis in personal terms, the governor noted that he mentioned every pandemic death in Kentucky during his daily press conferences to update people about the virus.
“I showed people during the pandemic I was willing to make the hard decisions, even if it cost me,” Beshear said. “I put politics out the window, and I made the best decisions I could to save as many lives as possible.”
Cameron countered that the governor infringed on constitutional rights with his restrictions.
“This governor, because of pride, won’t tell you that he has regrets,” Cameron said.
As the state’s attorney general, Cameron successfully led GOP-backed court fights against the governor’s pandemic actions, which essentially halted the COVID-era restrictions. Cameron said the governor’s policies amounted to executive overreach. Beshear said his actions saved lives and that he leaned heavily on guidance from former Republican President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force.
Cameron said Monday night that the restrictions hurt small businesses, many of which haven’t recovered. School closures during the pandemic led to widespread learning loss among students, he said.
“Your kids are behind because of this short-sighted decision,” Cameron said, blaming it on Beshear.
Beshear responded that he made vaccinations a priority for teachers to get schools reopened. Sending teachers back to classrooms before having access to the vaccine would have put them at risk, he said.
“It was real,” Beshear said during another exchange about the pandemic. “And acting like we shouldn’t have taken those steps is a slap in the face at all those health care workers that marched into the COVID wings when they didn’t have enough PPE, knowing they could take it home to their families.”
Education became another flashpoint in the debate, especially when the focus turned to school vouchers.
Asked repeatedly for his stance, Cameron eventually said that if elected he would sign legislation that included school vouchers or scholarship tax credits. Cameron said he wants to “expand opportunity and choice,” while noting that the education plan he unveiled earlier in the campaign focuses on public schools. Democrats say that was a strategic omission meant to mask his support for school choice measures they say would weaken public education.
Beshear, meanwhile, reiterated his staunch opposition to vouchers Monday night, saying “they steal money from our public schools and send them to our private schools.”
As attorney general, Cameron’s office unsuccessfully defended a Republican-backed measure to award tax credits for donations supporting private school tuition. Kentucky’s Supreme Court struck down the legislation in 2022. Bills promoting charter schools and private school-related tax credits were among the most contentious faced by Kentucky lawmakers in recent years, splintering Republican supermajorities.
Beshear has proposed an 11% pay raise for teachers and other public school personnel, including bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria staff. The governor said the raise is needed to get enough teachers in the classrooms to help students in need catch up. Kentucky lags behind most of the country in average teacher starting pay and average teacher pay.
Cameron has proposed raising the statewide base starting pay for new teachers, saying it would have a ripple effect by lifting pay for other teachers. Another key part of Cameron’s plan would develop an optional, 16-week tutoring program for math and reading instruction to help get students caught up.