I expected Andy Beshear to be a governor kind of like his father — competent but not particularly compelling, a Democrat but looking to take conservative stands at times in part to increase his chances of winning reelection in a state that is becoming increasingly Republican. After all, the younger Beshear’s successful gubernatorial campaign last year was not really about his leadership skills or vision for the state. Beshear basically argued that then-Gov. Matt Bevin was mean to people, teachers in particular, and that Kentuckians should replace Bevin with someone nice. And in a state where Republicans have sizable majorities in both houses of the legislature, it seemed like Beshear would spend much of his time as basically a bystander in Frankfort, watching the Republicans pass bills he opposed and then overriding his vetoes, which only require a majority of the members of each house.
But nearly five months into the job, Beshear has emerged as a much more consequential figure than I expected. That’s mostly because of the coronavirus outbreak. The Trump administration’s slow reaction to COVID-19 and then its decision to basically put states in charge of dealing with it has put governors in the spotlight around the country.
So Beshear is part of a group that includes governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Jay Inslee of Washington who are getting a lot more attention for their handling of the virus outbreak, both in their home states and nationally. New Yorkers are tuning into Cuomo’s daily press conferences much as people in Kentucky are to Beshear’s.
That said, it’s not just that Beshear happens to be a governor at this time in history. He was fairly early, particularly among governors of states in the South, to order the closure of non-essential businesses and urge residents to stay at home. (Beshear’s stay-at-home order came about 16 days after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state. That ranked Kentucky 16th of the 50 states in terms of how fast it issued such an order after its first case, according to an analysis by University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket.) And he has continued to be fairly cautious about allowing businesses in the state to reopen, even as Republican activists and some GOP officials are increasingly criticizing his approach. According to a recent report done by researchers at Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers universities, 81% of Kentuckians said they approved of their governor’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, putting Beshear behind only Ohio’s DeWine (83%.) A much smaller percentage of Kentuckians (51%) approved of Trump’s handling of the virus outbreak.
Beshear’s decision-making on the coronavirus has generally mirrored his approach as governor on other issues — aggressive and at times fairly partisan. In his first week as governor, he dumped all 11 members of the state’s board of education under Bevin, replacing them with a group that did not include any notable conservative figures, as well as issuing an executive order that is expected to allow tens of thousands of people who were convicted of criminal offenses but served their time to vote in upcoming elections. (Beshear’s father had enacted this policy at the end of his tenure as governor and had it immediately undone by Bevin.)
A few weeks later, Beshear’s administration announced that it would allow abortions to be performed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Louisville, making it the state’s second location where women can get abortions. (The other is a clinic in downtown Louisville.) Bevin’s administration had effectively blocked the clinic from performing abortions, and this move might be electorally-dangerous for Beshear — Bevin nearly won his reelection campaign despite his low approval ratings, and a big part of his strategy was highlighting his opposition to abortion and suggesting Beshear was too supportive of abortion rights. (Kentucky is one of the most anti-abortion states in the country.)
There were early notably liberal moves early in his tenure, as Ryan Grim of the left-leaning publication The Intercept, noted in a recent piece. Beshear released an analysis of Bevin’s pension plan, which the Republican had kept secret, likely because the analysis suggested Bevin’s proposal could reduce state’s employees’ post-retirement cash benefits and increase their health care costs. He attended the annual pro-gay rights Fairness Rally in the state capitol, becoming the first-ever sitting governor to do so. At that event, Beshear called for a ban on therapy methods that attempt to get minors who identify as LGBT to “convert” to heteorsexuality and posed for a picture with drag queens.
The legislature, of course, still matters. It basically forced Beshear to sign a provision requiring police officers in Kentucky schools to have guns and wrote the state’s budget with limited input from him. But he has been very willing to clash with them–even on issues where voters in the state might agree with the GOP. The governor vetoed a provision that requires Kentuckians to present a photo ID to vote, even though it was fairly clear the legislature would override the veto and enact the law anyway, as it eventually did. He repeatedly criticized the legislature for continuing to meet and pushing bills unrelated to the coronavirus or the state’s budget.
Last week, in the final days of the General Assembly’s 2019 session, Beshear vetoed a provision adopted by the legislature that would have given Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, more power overseeing the state’s abortion clinics and essentially compelled doctors to offer life-saving care to babies born after failed abortion attempts (which is already required). The legislative session ended, so Republicans could not override that veto, leaving them furious with the governor.
This week, Beshear interjected himself into an issue with national implications, criticizing Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent comments that cities and states should not get aid from the federal government to make up for budget shortfalls caused by COVID-19. Cuomo, a Democrat, praised Beshear for his comments.
Beshear, in his daily press conferences, constantly emphasizes that he is “not doing politics right now,” particularly in terms of his handling of the coronavirus. In reality of course, basically everything the governor of a state does is inherently political by the nature of the role. What Beshear really means is that he is not being partisan. That may be true in terms of coronavirus. Beshear’s aggressive approach in keeping people at home amid the virus outbreak mirrors that of Republican governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland and DeWine. Unlike some other Democratic governors, he largely avoids criticizing Trump. He recently reached a compromise with Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, allowing most Kentuckians to vote by mail for the state’s primary elections, which will now be held on June 23.
That said, in terms of opposing new abortion limits and voter ID laws, getting rid of Bevin’s education board and his other moves, Beshear isn’t really pursuing some kind of middle course between the parties. He is firmly governing as a Democrat. And the state’s Republicans are noticing. The state’s other five statewide elected officials, all of whom are from the GOP (including Adams) released an unusual joint statement earlier this month attacking Beshear for not allowing the legislature to hold a special session to consider whatever legislation it wanted. (Only the governor can call a special session.) The statement suggested that Beshear was trying to use his “newfound political popularity” to bully the legislators.
And this conservative resistance to the governor appears to be having some influence. Beshear is starting a gradual re-opening of business in the state, even as Kentucky is conducting significantly fewer coronavirus tests than health experts recommend to prevent more spreading of the virus.
Expect to see more sharp criticism of Beshear from Republicans, for two reasons. One, Beshear is making a lot of decisions that Republicans oppose ideologically.
Secondly, while there haven’t been any recent public polls on the governor’s overall approval rating I assume Beshear’s popularity has increased, perhaps substantially, because of his handling of the coronavirus. Kentucky hasn’t yet had a major outbreak and Beshear’s press conferences are calm and fact-focused in a way that is a clear contrast from the president’s approach and likely how Bevin would have handled this issue. So Republicans have some electoral incentives to attack Beshear before a positive narrative of the governor sets in and a wide bloc of voters see him as the man who saved the state from a terrible virus outbreak — not just the son of the former governor and a nicer guy than Matt Bevin. I suspect many Republicans in the state expected Beshear to be a fairly inconsequential figure who would be easy for the GOP to defeat in 2023 — so they need to rein in the governor as soon as possible.
For now though, Kentucky has a governor who is being positively featured on NPR and in the pages of The Guardian and really defining the state’s governance. Steve Beshear had such a moment too — in 2014-15, he was perhaps the most enthusiastic and effective booster of Obamacare at the state level. That wasn’t entirely surprising though — Steve Beshear was governor while Democrats held most statewide offices and controlled the State House of Representatives. He had been elected and then reelected in landslides. His son entered office with a much weaker political standing. But so far, Andy Beshear isn’t letting that limit him.