Crises forge Beshear’s role as Kentucky’s consoler in chief
Derrek McIntosh was left homeless twice within weeks — first by floodwaters that destroyed his eastern Kentucky home, then when a fire burned down the house he stayed in with relatives.
Now that he’s moved into a temporary travel trailer, McIntosh said he no longer worries where he’ll lay his head at night. And the 34-year-old Republican gives the credit for that to a Democrat — Gov. Andy Beshear.
When flooding swept through parts of Appalachia in late July, McIntosh said, the governor moved quickly.
“I think he’s doing an awesome job,” McIntosh said.
Beshear’s first term in office has been dominated by one deadly crisis after another: the global COVID-19 pandemic, tornadoes that killed scores of people in western Kentucky in December and floodwaters in Appalachia that left dozens more Kentuckians dead. Through it all, Beshear has offered encouragement to victims, pledged to hold officials accountable for the federal response and dived into the details of the recovery process.
“This rebuilding process is going to be one of the most challenging the country has ever seen,” Beshear said during a recent stop in Hazard. “And I think we’re up to it. I saw this saying the other day. It was: God saves his toughest challenges for his strongest soldiers.”
If there’s a playbook for a Democratic politician navigating the treacherous politics of a ruby-red state, Beshear may have found it. The 44-year-old governor talks about his Christian faith, his stewardship of the state’s record-setting economy and the resilience of his fellow Kentuckians.
Beshear, who is seeking reelection to his second term next year, typically steers away from partisan politics.
“Every time that we can put aside red or blue, D or R, and just focus on things that are good for our families, are the times that we jump in front of every other state that can’t do that,” the governor said recently at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual ham breakfast. “And I’m convinced that our job in state government isn’t to move the state to the right or to the left but to move it forward.”
Beshear’s approach has caught the eye of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who will chair the Democratic Governors Association in 2023. He said Beshear has an “unlimited ceiling” if the Kentuckian wins another term.
“He’s every bit as good as he seems,” Murphy said. “And he’s just an extraordinary leader and, by the way, knows how to get stuff done with the other side of the aisle.”
Other Democrats may find the formula hard to duplicate in places that haven’t faced the gauntlet of challenges Kentucky has — or if they lack his political pedigree. His father, Steve Beshear, was a popular two-term Kentucky governor from 2007 to 2015.
And while crisis management has marked the younger Beshear as a politician to watch since his election as governor in 2019, Republicans are lining up to challenge him in a state where Democrats have struggled in recent years.
The GOP holds both U.S. Senate seats, five of six congressional seats, every statewide office other than governor and lieutenant governor and supermajorities in the legislature.
“I think his personal image is right side up, but his party’s image is decidedly upside-down,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator and former adviser to President George W. Bush.
Following a strategy that catapulted the GOP to dominance in Kentucky, Republican contenders for governor hope to nationalize the race, in part by tying Beshear to the inflationary surge that caused President Joe Biden’s approval ratings to sag.
But Beshear’s appearances with Biden have come in the aftermath of natural disasters and only served to amplify Beshear’s role as a state-level consoler in chief as he focuses on helping people.
He intends to make his management of the state’s economy a cornerstone of his reelection campaign. During his term, Kentucky has posted record highs for job creation and investments and record low unemployment rates.
Republicans, meanwhile, consistently remind Kentuckians of the restrictions Beshear imposed during the pandemic.
“Folks, just because we lived through a global pandemic doesn’t mean that our rights, our freedoms and liberties should be tossed out the window,” GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ryan Quarles said this summer at the Fancy Farm picnic, the state’s top political event.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, among the Republicans running for governor, led a legal fight against Beshear’s pandemic restrictions on businesses and gatherings, winning before the Kentucky Supreme Court. That cleared the way for the legislature to rein in the governor’s emergency powers.
But as Republican rivals at the picnic slammed his job performance, Beshear was across the state in the mountains, consoling families left homeless by the flooding.
The governor defends his pandemic-related actions, which he says reflected guidance from then-President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force. More importantly, Beshear says, they saved lives.
For all his niceties, Beshear also has shown a fighter’s instincts — whether it’s on the campaign trail or in skirmishes over legislation.
He vetoed bills putting more restrictions on abortion and banning transgender girls and women from female sports teams, beginning in the sixth grade. Both were political risks in socially conservative Kentucky. Beshear also vetoed bills aimed at launching charter schools, phasing out individual income taxes and tightening rules for public assistance benefits. Republican lawmakers overrode all those vetoes and cite them as evidence that he’s out of touch.
“It shows that his beliefs are inconsistent with the beliefs of Kentuckians,” said state Auditor Mike Harmon, another GOP officeholder running for governor.
But for some Republican voters, Beshear’s handling of epic natural disasters and his empathy for Kentuckians struggling to overcome tragedy matter more.
Timothy Carter, an eastern Kentucky coal miner and diehard Trump supporter, said Beshear has been there for flood victims.
“He’s gotten out and stomped right through the mud just the same as they have,” Carter said. “And when a lot of people see that, that brings a different respect. It’s an earned respect.”
In a region with deep affection for Trump, Carter and several others praised Beshear as they waited recently for their children to be fitted with donated shoes at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, one of several places Beshear designated as emergency shelters after the tornadoes or flooding.
During another visit there, Beshear comforted Pansy McCoy, who took refuge at the park after floodwaters swamped her home. She’s hit a snag in getting the help she needs.
“I just want my home,” she told the governor. “I just want a home.”
“We’ll work with you on that, OK?” Beshear said before connecting her with members of his team.
While McCoy expressed her appreciation for the governor, not everyone saw things that way.
Randy Johnson stayed outside the park lodge when the governor spoke to a crowd inside. Johnson said later that he’s been in limbo since his home was flooded, living at the park with his wife and grandchild and awaiting federal aid.
“He sure let us down,” Johnson said. “I just don’t see nothing getting any better.”
But that wasn’t the prevailing view. McIntosh, the Republican who’s moved into a temporary travel trailer, said he’ll have no problem voting for the governor next year.
“I can’t believe he’s doing as much as he’s doing here,” McIntosh said, “trying to help all us eastern Kentuckians.”
Associated Press writer Mike Catalini in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.