Godspeed to Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s governor-elect. Whether you voted for him or not, a new gubernatorial term offers a clean slate and a chance for enhanced camaraderie among the state’s officers. I’ve known Andy since we were both 16 years old attending the Governor’s Scholars Program, and have always considered him fair-minded, calm and honest. Our politics are quite different, but I know Andy loves his family and state.
Beshear finds himself surrounded by Republicans in the executive and legislative branches, a condition his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, never fully suffered. But Kentucky is now overwhelmingly Republican, even as Beshear, like his father before him, takes office after dispatching a very flawed incumbent Republican.
I feel about Andy today the way I felt about Donald Trump after he won the 2016 presidential election – surprised but hopeful. While Trump ran on turning Washington upside down, Beshear, I think, was running on calming the waters as much as any single policy. It worked.
Speaking of the president, his election-eve Kentucky appearance succinctly defined the race. Of outgoing Gov. Matt Bevin, Trump called him, jokingly, a “pain in the ass.” But there’s truth in all of Trump’s jokes, and he cut to the core of explaining why Bevin lost.
Of Daniel Cameron, our new attorney general, Trump said “a star is born.” And he was right. Although I don’t consult many campaigns these days, I was honored to advise the 33-year old Cameron in his race against Greg Stumbo, of whom Kentucky cannot rid herself fast enough. Thank goodness we didn’t replace “one pain in the ass” in the capital with another.
We should all hope for a ratcheting down of the tensions that have plagued state government for the last few years. Beshear, as attorney general, sued Bevin repeatedly. Bevin returned the favor by viciously attacking Beshear in the press, ordering an investigation into his father’s administration and stripping his mother’s name from an education center.
Bevin had a hard time getting along with the Kentucky General Assembly, too, even after his Republican Party took full control of both chambers in 2017. The behind-the-scenes stories of Bevin lecturing legislative leaders – and of their subsequent eye-rolling – are legend.
Bevin’s instincts to reform the state’s pension system were correct, even as his bedside manner was not. The state’s teachers were enraged by Bevin’s condescension, prompting capitol marches and school sick-outs that, in turn, created tension among parents as they scrambled to arrange child care.
In the secretary of state’s office, Alison Lundergan Grimes’ career mercifully ends after she and her family drug the state through scandal after scandal. She clung to power to the bitter end, even though the legislature stripped many of Grimes’ duties because of corruption and incompetence. During one of her last appearances in Frankfort, Grimes was heard screaming during a State Board of Elections meeting.
Replacing her is Mike Adams, one of the most experienced election lawyers in the country. I couldn’t be prouder of my old college roommate and close friend, who beat the conventional wisdom that Heather French Henry would win no matter which party carried the top of the ticket.
Adams outhustled, outdebated, and simply overmatched the woefully unprepared Henry. He will approach his new job like he did the campaign—by working as many hours as it takes to clean up an office left in shambles. Adams’ win proved again that Kentuckians prefer workhorses to show ponies, and he robbed the Democrats of what they had hoped would be a future U.S. Senate candidate.
In Adams and Cameron, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell found two more proteges rising. In their campaign against Cameron, Democrats advertised heavily against McConnell only to see their message fall flat. The Republican Party’s sweeping 2019 performance (outside of Bevin, who Republicans never warmed up to, anyway) gives McConnell momentum ahead of his 2020 reelection.
Returning to Frankfort are three solid citizens – Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Treasurer Alison Ball and Auditor Mike Harmon. All three won easily because of stellar job performance, and all three have long political futures ahead of them.
This election marked the end of three Democratic families that have for decades played outsized roles in our politics: The Houses of Stumbo, Lundergan and Henry are now in our past. The House of Beshear remains standing, but how the governor-elect deals with the Republicans who surround him will determine whether his term is the last gasp of a nearly dead party or the beginning of a resurgence.
If Beshear tacks left, the GOP powers that be will render him irrelevant. If he responds to the will of the voters instead of the most left-leaning elements of the Democratic Party, Beshear could beat the odds to have a consequential first term.