Politics

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A Republican state senator launched his campaign for attorney general on Tuesday more than two years ahead of the 2019 election, ratcheting up the political pressure on one of the state’s few Democratic officeholders.

Whitney Westerfield says he will file his letter of intent with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance on Tuesday, meaning the two-term state senator can begin raising money for the statewide race. Andy Beshear holds the position now, one of only two Democrats in statewide office and the only one eligible to run for re-election in 2019.

The announcement will likely put more attention on Beshear’s political future. Westerfield lost the 2015 attorney general’s race to Beshear by less than one half of 1 percentage point. It was a surprisingly close race, given that Westerfield raised about $300,000 compared to the nearly $3 million raised by Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear.

But as the most outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, Beshear is seen as the most likely candidate to mount a campaign for governor in 2019. Beshear has sued Bevin four times over his use of executive authority to overhaul state government, igniting a bitter feud between the two politicians.

Beshear has not said if he will seek re-election or run for governor. Westerfield is preparing for both scenarios. The early kickoff to his campaign could give him a head start on raising money and re-introducing himself to voters beyond his western Kentucky Senate district.

As the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, Westerfield has helped pass high-profile legislation, including tougher penalties for heroin dealers, allowing some convicted felons to expunge their criminal records and letting women in abusive dating relationships seek emergency protective orders from the court.

And Westerfield has plenty of complaints about Beshear, including his announcement he would not defend a law the legislature passed banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. So far, that law has not been challenged in court. But Westerfield said if he were attorney general, he would defend every law the legislature passes.

“If I’m the attorney general and a Democratic legislature or governor passes (gambling) legislation, which I detest, I’d have to defend it,” Westerfield said. “The attorney general can’t be about picking and choosing which fights to do or get involved in.”

Westerfield criticized Beshear’s lawsuits against Bevin, saying he believed them to be politically motivated. But he said he would not be a “rubber stamp” for a Republican governor, pointing to his criticism of Republican President Donald Trump as an example of his willingness to “speak truth to power.”

Asked what criticisms he had of Bevin, Westerfield said he had none.

“There are some methods maybe in the way that he goes about doing business that I’m not accustomed to, but in terms of legislation or what he is doing, I can’t find any errors,” he said.

Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley noted Beshear’s office has secured millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements to help the state, including $10 million that has gone to drug treatment programs.

Staley also said Beshear has had the “courage to be the check on executive power that our Constitution requires.” When Bevin bypassed the state legislature to order state colleges and universities to cut their budgets, Beshear sued and the Supreme Court ordered Bevin to give the money back.

“Attorney General Beshear hopes anyone running for this office would be equally willing to uphold the Constitution and protect the rights of Kentuckians when a public official violates the law,” she said.