It’s been a long time since Kentucky was a competitive state in national politics: Bill Clinton carried it twice in the 1990s, but Republicans have won it by double-digits in every election since 2000, including then-President Donald Trump’s 26-point win in 2020. But Gov. Andy Beshear’s narrow victory in 2019 — and enduring popularity since taking office — means ticket-splitting may still be alive and well.
This month’s primary will only determine Beshear’s November opponent, not the fate of his governorship. But the primary marks key demographic and strategic drivers of politics in the state, foreshadowing the dynamics of the looming general election. Here are five key numbers to know:
Just like Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, the race started off with a clear favorite: State Attorney General Daniel Cameron broke strongest from the gate among the dozen candidates for the GOP nomination and has Trump’s endorsement. But Kelly Craft, who served separate stints as Trump’s former ambassador to Canada and the U.N., has been mounting a late charge.
Back in January, a Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey found Cameron well ahead of Craft, 39 percent to 13 percent. There hasn’t been much public polling since, but an Emerson College/WDKY-TV poll last month had a much closer race, with 21 percent of voters still undecided.
Cameron’s allies dispute that the race has closed, circulating their own internal poll showing him still comfortably leading — but with 19 percent undecided.
Like horse races, primaries break late, since the voters and the candidates are mostly ideologically aligned. Cameron and Craft, the top two GOP hopefuls, will be angling for those voters still waiting to make up their minds.
If Craft can’t catch Cameron on the May. 16, it won’t be for a lack of financial resources.
Craft, the wife of billionaire coal magnate Joe Craft, has already spent or booked $5.8 million in TV advertising, according to data from AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm. She’s also been boosted by $1.4 million in ads from Commonwealth PAC, an outside group funded largely (though not entirely) by Joe Craft, though those ads aren’t on the air anymore. That means she’s spent at least $7.2 million on the primary alone.
Cameron, by contrast, has spent or booked only $564,000. He does have an outside group, Bluegrass Freedom Action, which has added $2.1 million to help him close the gap. The group is running ads touting Trump’s endorsement.
The spending advantage has been a double-edged sword for Craft. She’s come under attack from Cameron for relying on her family’s money in the primary, but she can also offer Republicans the prospect of a blank check to fund an expensive and grueling general election against Beshear.
Kentucky Republicans finally did it last year: They eclipsed Democrats in voter registration for the first time in history, a key milestone in the state’s rapid red shift.
Four years ago, Democrats still retained a significant registration advantage, 49 percent to 42 percent. That’s already reversed: Republicans outnumber Democrats in registration heading into this primary, according to the state Board of Elections, 46 percent to 44 percent.
The erasure of Democrats’ ancestral registration advantage has been rapid. Twenty-four years ago, when Republicans chose Peppy Martin for an ill-fated run against Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, Republicans accounted for only 32 percent of registered voters, outnumbered almost 2-to-1 by Democrats (61 percent). When Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear was first elected in 2007, Democrats had a 20-point registration advantage, 57 percent to 37 percent.
This year, more voters can participate in the Republican primary for the first time.
Despite the state’s rightward shift, Beshear remains popular.
How popular? According to Morning Consult’s quarterly tracking, Beshear has the highest approval rating of any Democratic governor at 63 percent. He outpaces governors in solidly blue states like Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii, California and New York.
Beshear’s sky-high approval rating isn’t an artifact of Morning Consult’s methodology or long field period, either: The January Mason-Dixon poll gave him a similarly high, 61 percent positive job rating.
Republicans have started the process of trying to knock down Beshear’s popularity. An outside group affiliated with the Republican Governors Association began running culture war-tinged TV ads late last month hitting the Democrat for “allow[ing] sex changes for children as young as 8- or 9-years-old.”
So exactly how does Beshear cobble together a winning coalition in a state that’s become so Republican?
It involves a lot of crossover Trump voters.
According to a POLITICO analysis of election results, Trump in 2020 outran then-Gov. Matt Bevin’s 2019 performance in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties. In one rural county, Beshear won it by 20, and the next year Biden lost it by 51. The result is an unheard-of 72-point gap between those two races.
In the bluer population centers, the differences were significant, but relatively modest: Beshear won Fayette County, home to Lexington, by 33 points in 2019, while President Joe Biden carried it by 21 points a year later. In Louisville, Beshear won by 35 points, but Biden won by 20.
The gap between the two races was greatest outside the cities — especially in Eastern Kentucky, where Democrats once dominated but now barely register in presidential races. Take tiny Elliott County, where Trump beat Biden by a three-to-one margin, 75 percent to 24 percent, in 2020. Beshear actually won it over Bevin — and it wasn’t particularly close: 59 percent to 39 percent.
The same phenomenon is evident in other surrounding, conservative counties. In Boyd County, home to Ashland — the largest city in Eastern Kentucky’s coal region — Beshear won by 6 points in 2019, but Trump carried it by a whopping 33 points a year later.
Whoever wins this month’s GOP primary will undoubtedly try to nationalize the race to depress Beshear’s appeal in these solidly red areas — though it’s worth noting that Bevin pursued the same strategy in 2019 and ended up losing.