The Kentucky governors race is shaping up to be one of the biggest contests of 2023

An incumbent Democrat running on kitchen table issues will be pitted against a Republican culture warrior in the Kentucky governor’s race this fall, and the results could send a signal about voters’ priorities in close races heading into 2024.

At the annual Fancy Farm picnic in rural far-west Kentucky this past weekend, Gov. Andy Beshear and his Republican challenger, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, channeled what might become familiar playbooks for Democratic and GOP candidates next year.

Beshear is seeking a second term this November as one of America’s most popular governors with the approval of not just a majority of Democrats and independents, but also about half of the state’s GOP voters. He’s achieved that by presiding over Kentucky’s largest budget surplus ever and leading the state through a strong economic recovery from the pandemic, as well as recovery from tornadoes and floods that hit red, rural areas of the state particularly hard. He’s using that record to contrast himself with Cameron: “Daniel Cameron will show up for a political rally, but not for tornado survivors,” Beshear said at the picnic.

But Cameron, who would become the first Black Republican governor in the US if elected, is also popular in Kentucky. He made a name for himself by suing the Beshear and Biden administrations over issues such as abortion, vaccine mandates, and the termination of a Trump-era border policy. He also led the criminal investigation into the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in which he opted not to pursue charges against any of the officers involved. He won the May primary with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement.

And on the campaign trail, he’s sought to attack Beshear’s positions on issues from the state’s ban on care for trans youth to crime. At the picnic, he asked, “Governor, are you auditioning for a job with Bud Light’s marketing team?” referencing the massive conservative boycott of the beer brand following its collaboration with a prominent trans influencer.

“I think the dividing line in this race is that Beshear wants to make it about what he’s done in office and state and local issues,” said Jessica Taylor, the US Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report. “And then you have Cameron, [who] really wants to nationalize this race and make it more about social issues.“

Sam Newton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, said that “there’s no such thing as an easy race in Kentucky,” but Beshear is in a strong position. He’s leading Cameron in most polls conducted over the last few months. The most recent — a July poll by Public Opinion Strategies sponsored by the Republican State Leadership Committee — found that Beshear had a four percentage point lead.

If Beshear wins, his campaign would provide a blueprint for Democrats running in Republican-leaning and swing states next year. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Kentucky isn’t really a swing state — raising the question of just how much the race will actually prove a bellwether.

What the parties can learn from the results in Kentucky

It’s not clear how much we can learn from the race given how red Kentucky has become. Trump easily carried the state in 2020 and 2016. Republicans have a supermajority in the state legislature that has allowed them to override many of Beshear’s vetoes. And every other state constitutional office is held by a Republican.

“If [Cameron does] end up winning, it is a warning shot for Democrats that the Democratic message is being rejected even more in rural areas,” Taylor said. “But I still would caution against reading too much into it. I certainly don’t think that if Beshear were to lose this election, that is necessarily reflective on swing states in the presidential election.”

A Beshear victory would be a vindication of Democrats’ efforts to take credit for what appears to be a soft landing for the economy and the aversion of a long-predicted recession. So far, Biden’s pitch for “Bidenomics” as the solution to cost of living problems hasn’t been resonating as well as the White House might have hoped: only 34 percent of people approved of Biden’s performance on the economy, according to a CBS poll conducted late last month. But White House officials are betting that it eventually catches on in time.

If Beshear doesn’t win, it might send Democrats back to the drawing board, particularly when it comes to responding to Republican attacks on culture war issues.

Beshear has been trying to keep the race focused on Kentucky, rather than national culture war issues. “While the other side tries to distract Kentuckians with lies and falsehoods, Andy Beshear is proud to run on his record of the lowest unemployment rate in Kentucky history, billions of dollars in new economic investment across the Commonwealth, and major bipartisan,” said Alex Floyd, a Beshear campaign spokesperson. As of August 5, Beshear’s campaign and Democratic groups have spent a total of $6.2 million supporting that message, as well as attacking Cameron’s record.

But the Republican party apparatus has been seeking to link Beshear to more progressive national Democrats, trying to demonstrate how far they believe the governor has strayed from the will of Kentucky voters and “tying him to Biden as much as we can,” according to a Republican operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They’re doing so with a $2.4 million spending advantage so far.

Several TV and digital ads commissioned by the Republican Governors Association have centered on Beshear’s opposition to a ban on care for trans youth and new restrictions on human sexuality instruction in public schools. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the crowd at the picnic that “Biden and Beshear aren’t working for Kentucky” and that “Andy might as well be on the White House payroll.” (He was met with boos and heckling from the mostly Democratic crowd.)

It’s not clear whether those characterizations will stick to a governor as bipartisanly popular as Beshear. The dynamics are different this year than when Beshear won his first term: He was previously running against an unpopular Republican incumbent and even then did not win by a large margin. Republicans now have the voter registration advantage in the state, and they’re asking their base to make unified state government a reality from a position of strength.

“The argument [Republicans] have to make is that, ‘You can like the job that Andy Beshear did. But ultimately, we need a unified Republican slate to fully move this state in a more conservative direction,’” Taylor said.