It’s hard to say what swings elections, but how candidates position themselves in the months before voters hit the polls is always remarkably interesting. It’s generally a mixture of playing up a trusting personality, leaning on achievements and strategically attacking perceived weaknesses — usually with some measure of facts, half-truths and, sometimes, blatant disinformation.
So, we’re going to dissect four ads from the governor’s race in Kentucky with the help of political commentators and policy experts.
In the current gubernatorial race, incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear takes on Republican challenger and Attorney General Daniel Cameron in a contest that tests the limits of how red Kentucky has become. There’s a Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, but Beshear’s popularity as a centrist Democrat has proved to be steady.
Veteran journalist and political columnist Al Cross, who is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told LEO Weekly that Beshear has achieved high approval through his personality.
“They want somebody who will personify our state to the nation, and I think voters have been very comfortable with Andy Beshear to be the guy to do that. I think that Cameron, because he’s so wedded to these soundbites and talking points that you see him using in debates and other public appearances — people really don’t see Cameron as genuine as Beshear. Now, to be sure, Andy Beshear is a strategically calculated politician, behind the gauze curtain of friendly Andy, there is one tough guy who knows how to practice politics in an effective way.”
In advance of the Nov. 7 Election Day, here are four campaign video ads that we feel have defined the season so far. While this is not a comprehensive list — and there are way more tactics and issues at play — these selections should give a good sense of how each candidate is approaching the election.
Cameron Leans On Trump Endorsement
In a mid-October ad, Cameron plays the Trump card, leaning on the embattled former president’s success with Kentucky voters.
“I’m the only candidate endorsed by President Trump,” Cameron says in the ad.
In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump received 62.1% of the votes cast in Kentucky in a nationwide race he ultimately lost.
Trump, a current presidential candidate who is facing 91 felony counts in four separate criminal cases, is still considered a kingmaker in some sectors of the Republican party.
Washington Post columnist and Louisville resident Perry Bacon, Jr. thinks that it’s a smart tactic from Cameron to boost his connection with Trump.
“Ultimately, if every person who voted for Trump for president voted for Cameron, he would win this race, so I just think playing on that Republican partisanship is the most logical way for Cameron to win,” Bacon told LEO Weekly.
Attacking Beshear’s COVID Commutations
In some of the more contested ads of campaign season, super PACs supporting Cameron claimed that Beshear’s decision to release prisoners early during the pandemic allowed dangerous people to “roam free.”
In more than one fall ad, School Freedom Fund and Bluegrass Freedom Action alleged that Gov. Beshear ordering more than 1,800 commutations of Kentucky inmates during the height of the Covid did damage to the community.
However, a lot of the information is misleading.
One of those ads said that James Hamlin, a man from Covington, “sodomized a young child, only six years old,” before “Beshear turned him loose, released back into the community within a year.”
But, Hamlin was never released, and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence, and lawyers for the Beshear campaign sent a letter to TV stations in Louisville and Lexington demanding the ad be pulled due to it being “materially false,” according to reporting from the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Another ad, being called “means and motives,” stated that Beshear’s commutations allowed three people to “sexually abuse a young child,” “brutally strangle a woman” and “allegedly murder an innocent man.”
According to the reporting from the Herald-Leader, the three men pictured did commit those crimes, but whether the commutations were to blame is more opaque.
Two of the men who were let out of prison early didn’t have much more time to serve before being released on their initial sentence, and they likely would have been free before committing their next crimes whether Beshear made his decision or not. But the other man, who was determined to be medically vulnerable, would not have been released by the time he committed assault in 2021, after he was let out early.
Reporting by the Courier-Journal determined that a Bluegrass Freedom Action ad accurately states that 800 commutation recipients faced new criminal charges, but that it failed to include the context that most of those people were charged after their original projected release date.
Bacon, the Washington Post columnist, finds it strange that Cameron is looking back to the pandemic for ad material, since it’s “not like Andy Beshear has been a perfect governor the past two years.” Bacon said that a lot of Beshear’s popularity stems from the pandemic, so it might not make sense to stem attacks around decisions during that time.
“In some ways, he’s running against Andy Beshear’s chief accomplishment,” Bacon said. “Beshear’s ratings are strong and he’s well-liked in part because he was perceived to be a calming, optimistic influence with his daily press conferences amid this troubling time for the state and the country and the world with Covid-19, so I don’t think attacking Beshear’s handling of the Covid period strikes me as very smart.”
In a September Beshear campaign ad attacking Cameron’s support of Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban, a young woman named Hadley from Owensboro speaks about being sexually abusher when she was a child.
“This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” she says in the ad. “To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”
Cross said that he thinks it’s the ad that will stick with people the most from the race.
“The ad people are going to remember, more than any other, is Hadley,” Cross said. “She looks right in the camera and said, ‘This is to you, Daniel Cameron.’ That is one of the most powerful political messages that I’ve ever seen on television.”
The current version of the abortion law, which Cameron has repeatably defended — including during a March primary debate — does not include exceptions for rape or incest.
But, during a mid-September interview on NewsRadio 840 WHAS after the ad was released, he seemed to shift his stance.
“If our legislature was to bring legislation before me that provided exceptions for rape and incest, I would sign that legislation,” Cameron said during the interview. “There’s no question about that.”
Tamarra Wieder, Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, said in a statement that Cameron is playing political games with a very serious issue.
“Either he lied about his position in order to secure a right-wing fringe group’s endorsement, or he’s lying to voters now,” Wieder said. “No matter which way Cameron tries to spin it, Kentuckians cannot trust him to lead our state or to create policies that impact our health care and our bodily autonomy.”
Bacon called the conversations about abortion “surprising” because the Republican candidate has been put on the defensive.
“In some ways, the dog caught the car, so to speak,” Bacon said. “The Republicans campaigned for a long time on, ‘We will try to ban abortion as much as possible in every circumstance.’ Then the Supreme Court let them do it. And now it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re in a position that’s unpopular, even with Republican voters, even with the middle of the electorate in Kentucky.’ But the Republican candidate in Kentucky ended up being on the defensive on abortion rights, and this has been a fairly effective tactic by Beshear.”
Beshear’s Bipartisan Push
In a mid-October ad that revolves around achievements and a bipartisan mindset, Beshear uses the phrase: “We’re getting things done — let’s keep it going.”
In the ad, Beshear says “I’ve signed 627 bipartisan bills,” then goes on to talk about the legalization of sports betting, the income tax cut, capping the cost of insulin and a forthcoming medical cannabis program in Kentucky.
Bacon said that Beshear’s centrist push is a smart tactic.
“I think, what this ad is playing into, which is, ‘I’m not a hardline Democrat, and I support some bills that Republics support,’” Bacon said. “‘I’m not super progressive.’ ‘I’m governing in a bipartisan way.’ All of this plays into this idea that, ‘I’m a safe kind of Democrat for you, a Republican, to vote for.’ And ‘I’m also a safe Democrat, for you, a Republican, to decide, Ah, Andy’s not that bad, I can sit this one out.’ And I think that’s a big, important goal: to not have Republicans running out of their houses to vote against him.”
For Beshear to win, Bacon said he needs to once again flip some Republicans, since Kentucky is currently primarily red.
“For President Biden, he mostly just needs to win the votes of Democrats and swing voters to get elected,” Bacon said. “But Andy Beshear, he has to win actual Republicans to be elected. The state is so Republican that he needs to win actual Republicans. He also needs some Republicans who are conservative to just decide, ‘Andy Beshear is okay. I just need to skip this election.’”
Cross said that Beshear has a strong record when it comes to economic development, but that it’s a topic that is often hard to get voters to pay attention to.
“Beshear has got a great economic development record to run on,” Cross said. “I wondered, at the start of this race, if people would attach as much importance to that issue as they had in the past because politics seem so much more focused today on social issues and national issues. We live in the area of Donald Trump and social media. People really aren’t paying close attention to what a governor does… But when you have a record like Beshear’s, I think it’s still a pretty good selling point.”
The Beshear campaign claims responsibility for $27 billion in new private sector investments, including the $6 billion investment at BlueOval SK Battery Park in Hardin County and the $2 billion investment at AESC Gigafactory in Warren County.
Jason Bailey, who is executive director of the research organization Kentucky Center For Economic Policy, called the battery plants “a really big deal,” but cautioned that there’s still progress to be made.
“There are still outstanding questions about the quality of those jobs, and that’s why the UAW strike plays a big role in terms of the outcome of that, and how that will affect those jobs, because we’ve also seen declining job quality in the auto industry from what it once was,” Bailey said. “So, it’s really important that Kentucky participates in the transition that’s coming, and those plants give us a good start toward that.” •