FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Wednesday that Democrats have a better chance of connecting with rural voters in his home state and elsewhere when they talk about the things people need and the ways they can help them.
“When we think about how do we communicate with our rural families, the first thing is to care about them,” the Democratic governor said in an interview with The Associated Press at the state Capitol. “And to show that you care about them, and to earn their trust that you do truly care about them.”
Beshear said his party's candidates need to show up with a core message centered on good-paying jobs, access to quality health care and good public schools — all issues that he sees as resonating with rural voters who have abandoned the party in droves in recent elections.
Beshear, who faces his own tough reelection fight next year in a state dotted with small towns and farms, is better positioned than most Democrats to talk about connecting with rural voters. He has maintained strong job approval ratings in a state where the GOP has become the dominant party.
The Kentucky governor's race, falling as it always does in the year before a presidential election, has been flagged as the Democratic Governors Association's top priority in 2023. GOP candidates, including several who have battled Beshear on legal and political fronts during his first term in office, are lining up for the chance to challenge Beshear.
Beshear has devoted much of his time as governor leading recovery efforts in rural areas of Kentucky stricken by devastating tornadoes a year ago and historic flooding earlier this year.
To make inroads in rural regions, candidates need to focus on the things that matter most to people — whether they're making enough to support their families, can afford quality health care that's accessible and can send their children to good schools.
“Whenever people get focused on the red versus blue, or the D versus R, they lose focus that our job is to serve the families in our states,” Beshear said. “Families want to hear that you’re trying to make their life better. You’re not trying to move something to the right or the left, but you’re trying to help them move forward.”
Beshear spoke about his administration's work to provide clean drinking water for rural Kentuckians, and said one of his most satisfying days as governor was when he announced economic development projects in rural counties at both ends of the Bluegrass State.
“I think Democrats should show up more in rural America because it’s America,” the governor said. “Every person counts. The great lesson of COVID is that we all matter. And if we’re not lifting up every single part of Kentucky, we’re not doing our job.”
Beshear is preparing for his reelection campaign bearing a strong family brand — his father is a former two-term Kentucky governor — while yoked to a greatly diminished Democratic brand. Republicans built their dominance in Kentucky by cultivating reliable strongholds spanning the state’s rural regions -- from the Appalachians in the east to the farming country in the west.
In 2011, the governor's father, Steve Beshear, won more than three-fourths of Kentucky's 120 counties to claim a second term. In 2019, Andy Beshear carried less than one-fourth of the counties but ran up big margins in cities and suburbs to narrowly defeat GOP incumbent Matt Bevin.
Andy Beshear will have to replicate that performance to win a second term, said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator and former adviser to President George W. Bush. Democrats in Kentucky have no shot at regaining rural support anytime soon, Jennings said.
“The Democratic Party espouses economic and cultural values that are completely foreign to most rural voters, and is unapologetic about it,” said Jennings, who sees Beshear as the frontrunner at this point but said the incumbent is “beatable.”
Beshear will face waves of attacks from Republicans eager to consolidate their power by winning back the governorship.
“Andy Beshear and the Democrat Party do not represent Kentucky’s values,” state GOP spokesperson Sean Southard said in a statement earlier this week.
He pointed to Beshear’s vetoes of bills aimed at gradually phasing out state individual income taxes and preventing transgender girls and women from participating in school sports matching their gender identity. The GOP-dominated legislature overrode those and other Beshear vetoes this year.
Beshear invoked his faith Wednesday in response to a question about transgender rights and other debates resolving around social issues.
“My faith teaches me not to judge but to love," the governor said. “It teaches me that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and that everybody’s our neighbor.”
Beshear, a church deacon, comfortably refers to his Christian faith when discussing his policy priorities. He describes access to health care as a basic human right. The governor recently extended Medicaid coverage for dental, vision and hearing care to hundreds of thousands of Kentucky adults.
“How you talk about your faith and your values is very personal,” Beshear said Wednesday during the interview. “It’s very important to me. And I don’t talk about it because of any political bent. I talk about it because it’s part of me and it’s also part of how I make decisions.”
Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press