Kentucky Politics

About a year ago, Andy Beshear stood on stage at the C2 event space in downtown Louisville, declaring victory for his gubernatorial campaign.

“Tonight, voters in Kentucky sent a message loud and clear for everyone to hear,” Beshear said. “It’s a message that says our elections don’t have to be about right versus left. They are still about right versus wrong.” 

The governor’s race that year was “a squeaker,” as Republican incumbent Matt Bevin called it. It was so close that Bevin demanded a recanvass before eventually conceding more than a week later. The Kentucky GOP swept all the other constitutional offices that night even as they lost the governor’s mansion, and added to their state legislative majorities. 

Beshear’s agenda was already facing an uphill battle when he encountered a roadblock no one could have foreseen: the coronavirus pandemic. When the first cases started popping up in Kentucky in early March, Beshear responded decisively. He issued executive orders closing bars and restaurants, limiting non-essential medical services and expanding unemployment benefits, among countless other measures intended to stem the spread of the virus. 

An October poll showed 65 percent of Kentuckians still approve of Beshear’s handling of the pandemic. But he has not issued new executive orders recently. Even as coronavirus cases have mounted in Kentucky, Beshear has faced growing procedural pushback from Republicans for his early efforts. 

And Tuesday night, Kentucky Republicans further tilted the odds in their favor, picking up at least 12 seats in the 100-member House, bringing their ranks to at least 74. They also picked up two seats in the 38-member Senate, where they now have 30 members.

Kentucky’s legislature is now more than 75% Republican.

But that Republican-led legislature was not “involved at all with the policymaking concerning a public health pandemic,” said Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. 

Quarles and Attorney General Daniel Cameron have challenged Beshear’s executive orders in court, arguing for more oversight by the legislature. The case is before the state Supreme Court. 

But Quarles said things could change when the legislature returns in January. 

“I think the legislature…has an appetite to make sure they insert themselves as a co-equal branch of government, particularly when it comes to long-standing executive orders that don’t have a sunset,” he said. 

Some of that has already begun. State Representative Savannah Maddox, a northern Kentucky Republican, has prefiled a bill with seven co-sponsors that would limit the governor’s ability to issue executive orders. Senate President Robert Stivers says that’s just the beginning. 

“We’re going to look at the way the governor’s office is run, the use of his executive powers and the fact that they have many, many areas [where] they have created just total disasters,” Stivers said. 

Stivers said they’re just responding to the will of the people. 

“Ask the Commonwealth of Kentucky what they think and who they gave the mandate to last night,” Stivers said Tuesday. 

Dems Weakened

While Republicans begin to move on their mandate, Kentucky Democrats are adjusting to the reality of having even fewer members in the state legislature.

House Minority Leader Joni Jenkins, a Democrat from Louisville, said that the party was prepared for a difficult election cycle, but was still surprised.

“I think we underestimated the wave that was coming. I think we were prepared emotionally to lose seats; we were not prepared to lose so many incumbents,” Jenkins said.

Democrats will still be focused on passing a budget and increasing revenue for the state, she said. “We are willing to work with them on these complex issues in a bipartisan manner. And we are ready to hold them accountable when we think their ideas are not good for Kentucky.”

Jenkins says she’s also willing to work with Republicans on their issues with Beshear’s coronavirus response.

“I am willing to talk about where it stands right now in terms of executive powers and it may be that we want to tweak things,” Jenkins said. “But I don’t think Kentuckians want the General Assembly running in and out of special session during the interim.”

Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey says Democrats have been preparing for pushback from the Republicans since long before election results rolled in Tuesday night. He said public health required the  governor to take decisive action and he feels that Beshear has done enough to bring the legislative branch into the process. 

“They are trying to weaken the powers of the executive branch at a time when we need executive leadership to make sure that our people are safe, our businesses can be open, [and] our schools can be open,” McGarvey said. 

But even if Beshear weathers this particular storm, the rest of his agenda is equally imperiled by the growing Republican stronghold in Kentucky. Tres Watson, a Republican strategist who runs Capitol Reins PR, said Beshear needs to reverse course if he doesn’t want his pandemic response to define the rest of his term. 

“If I were Andy Beshear, I would find a couple of places where I could work with the legislature so I could claim a few victories,” Watson said. “But if he doesn’t come to the General Assembly with some sort of conciliatory tone, wanting to work with them, it is well within their legislative power to essentially write him out of the process.”

At a coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Beshear was realistic about what he faces come January. 

“I’m willing to work with anyone who’s willing to work with us,” he said. “I’m committed to doing what it takes to defeat this pandemic, too, regardless of what this means about my future or re-election or the rest.” 

But, he said, you can’t put 138 people in charge of managing a pandemic — and that’s why he was elected chief executive. 

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.