Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.
The power of incumbency and party loyalty are being tested this year as Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi choose their next governors.
The showcase contest is shaping up to be in Republican-leaning Kentucky, where Democrat Andy Beshear is running for re-election following flood and tornado disasters; a court-quashed social distancing order early in the Covid pandemic; a short-lived veto of a transgender student law; and a mass shooting in Louisville that killed one of his close friends.
A dozen Republicans now are vying to run against Beshear, who in a Morning Consult survey heading into this election year had a 60% approval rating among registered voters in Kentucky. That was higher than any other Democratic governor, even those in states that tilt blue.
That poll result especially stands out because Kentucky gave Donald Trump 62.1% of the vote in 2020.
“Tension between personal popularity and what people think of your party, to me, is the overriding theme of Kentucky and Mississippi and to some extent Louisiana,” said John Couvillon, president and founder of JMC Analytics and Polling in Baton Rouge, La.
Beshear cast himself as somewhat of an underdog in a recent fundraising appeal, reminding potential campaign donors that he won by less than a percentage point in 2019. “Republican extremists will be throwing everything they’ve got at me,” he wrote. “I’ll need to work twice as hard to win this November.”
In addition to name recognition as the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, the incumbent became a more familiar face as he managed the aftermath of flooding in eastern Kentucky and tornadoes in western Kentucky.
Those natural disasters “allowed him to mobilize the mechanisms of the state to bring aid to electorates that normally wouldn’t be his as a Democrat,” said Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
The GOP primary includes 12 Republicans, including Attorney General Daniel Cameron, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, State Auditor Mike Harmon, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
The two GOP frontrunners, Cameron and Craft, haven’t debated yet. Craft has pushed for dismantling the state Department of Education and has touted her record as UN ambassador. She has family wealth to help fund her campaign and her backers bought ads attacking Cameron as insufficiently conservative.
Cameron has emphasized his work as attorney general, settlements with major pharmacies related to the opioid crisis, support for law enforcement and has highlighted Trump’s endorsement.
The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter ranks the race as leaning Democratic, said Jessica Taylor, senator and governors editor at the nonpartisan publication. “I think it’s a test of whether Democrats can defend in red states,” she said in an interview.
Races for governor tend to be more personality-driven than races for Congress, said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“If Beshear wins, it would be a continuation of what we saw last year of incumbents having a very good track record,” Coleman said. “It would be an affirmation that governors’ races are less driven by partisanship and more driven by personality and candidate quality.”
Voss said he’s heard some compare Beshear’s personality to that of television’s soft-spoken, cardigan-wearing Fred Rogers. “Beshear gets to be the adult,” he said. “We’ve got Mr. Rogers against an unruly, uncontrolled Republican party, a bunch of elephants trampling around.”
Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said the GOP can show a contrast between the positions of their candidates and Beshears’ actions in office—especially his decision to restrict church attendance in the pre-vaccine phase of the pandemic, which also is the focus of a Cameron campaign ad.
As voters learn more about Beshear, “they’ll realize he’s not who he says he is and he doesn’t fit the state,” Scarpinato said. “We believe the voters of Kentucky deserve a choice here of someone who is more in line with their values and is going to be focused on leading the state in a positive direction.”
The Aug. 8 Mississippi primary will likely feature Republican Gov. Tate Reeves against Brandon Presley, a public service commissioner for the Northern District who said he’s a distant relative of Elvis Presley, who was born in Tupelo.
There, too, disaster management could play a role in how voters view the incumbent—at least 25 people were killed by tornadoes just last month.
Though it’s a little soon for any grades, Cook’s Taylor said a visit from President Joe Biden hit a nonpartisan tone. He “seems to have managed it well so far,” she said in an email. “If you do a good job handling a natural disaster, that has frequently helped governors for re-election.”
Reeves has been emphasizing his role in raising teachers’ salaries and cutting the state income tax. He has said he will work toward eliminating the state income tax if re-elected.
He also may have missed an opportunity by hanging back and following the lead of some other governors rather than making himself the constant face of pandemic response, said Jonathan Winburn, professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. “He’s just not the most charismatic politician and I think that plays into his perception of popularity as well,” Winburn said.
Reeves won in 2019 with 51.9% of the vote. In 2020, Trump won the state with 57.6% of the vote.
The Cook Political Report has changed its rating for the race from solid Republican to likely Republican, Taylor said. “Even with some of the things dogging Reeves, he’s still favored,” she said. “Beating an incumbent is tough.”
In Louisiana, the governor’s race is open because term limits prevent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) from running again.
Louisiana uses a majority-vote election system for primaries. All candidates compete in the Oct. 14 primary and a candidate can win the election by receiving 50% of the vote. If no candidate gets 50%, the two candidates who received the most votes continue to the Nov. 18 general election regardless of their political party.
A handful of GOP candidates is seeking the party’s nomination to run for governor, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, who was endorsed by the Louisiana Republican Party. Shawn Wilson, former head of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, is the only prominent Democrat to enter the race, political analysts said.
Landry talks about his record as attorney general as well as his experience as a police officer as giving him an edge among the candidates to combat rising crime in the state.
Edwards ran and governed as a conservative, which independents and Republicans found appealing, Taylor said. Wilson, who doesn’t have a legislative record, has been emphasizing his record as transportation secretary, specifically large infrastructure projects and improvements undertaken during his tenure.
“This is a very difficult seat for the Democrats to defend,” Taylor said, adding that the Cook Political Report has rated the race as leaning Republican in a state that gave Trump 58.5% of the vote. “You have to be a conservative” to stand a chance.
“Louisiana’s always a tough race but we’ve shown that we can win and compete there before,” said Sam Newton, Democratic Governors Association spokesman.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at firstname.lastname@example.org