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Al Cross: Two years on, Andy Beshear has beaten expectations and the public gives him good marks

Two years ago Friday, Kentucky inaugurated the nation’s second-youngest governor, a lawyer just turned 42. Andy Beshear lacked the experience and political following usually needed to be an effective leader of a diverse and often fractious state. He had been attorney general, but that office had never directly produced a governor before.

Beshear’s main asset was his last name – his father had been a recent two-term governor – and his main advantage was that he was running against Matt Bevin, who made more enemies than friends in the term that followed Steve Beshear’s. So, when the son took office, as a Democrat in a Capitol with Republican supermajorities in both legislative chambers, expectations were not high.

But just as the General Assembly was ready to steamroll Beshear on the budget and other issues, the coronavirus arrived and turned politics upside down. In the twinkling of an eye, Beshear was in command, like governors of old, with extra emergency powers the governor’s office got in 1998, the last time Democrats ran the legislature.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

And these were powers no governor had ever used statewide: closing schools and non-essential businesses, ordering citizens to wear masks, and prohibiting gatherings – even church services. When Beshear sent state troopers to non-compliant churches to put notices on cars telling people they should quarantine themselves, Republicans began criticizing Beshear, and they haven’t stopped.

Some of that criticism was warranted, such as legislators’ complaints that Beshear wasn’t consulting with them, despite his inaugural pledge to “lead with an outstretched hand,” and that he bungled the huge surge in unemployment claims, spurning their offer of staff help. But early in the pandemic, Kentuckians got to know Andy Beshear, perhaps in a way no Kentucky governor has ever been known. And most liked what they saw.

In a state fractured by 10 television markets, most dominated by other states, state-government news is often scant, but Beshear’s daily pandemic press conferences became appointment video, even online. People were hungry for facts and guidance, and Beshear and Health Commissioner Steven Stack did a generally good job of delivering both.

A poll in October 2020, after Beshear issued a mask mandate, showed his pandemic work was approved by more than 2 to 1. A poll taken from mid-July to mid-October 2021 gave him overall approval of 54 percent, about the same rating as the 2020 poll gave him on jobs and the economy, with many undecided. A poll today would likely rate him better on jobs, given the record economic-development announcements he has made this year.

As Beshear runs for re-election, those announcements will become reality and political assets, but a bigger factor may be the pandemic that still alters American life because so many Americans won’t get vaccinated.

Beshear long ago quit hectoring the unvaccinated. When Stack said Dec. 2, “The longer we have large percents [sic] of the population unvaccinated, the longer this lingers and the more the problem kind of festers,” Beshear spread the responsibility much more widely: “The way I would kind of translate that is we’re only finally gonna defeat COVID as one world, and it’s still gonna take some time until we can get enough vaccines to the entire world.”

In September, Republican legislators followed the sentiments of their party’s vocal and growing libertarian wing and stripped the governor of his emergency pandemic powers. Some may not have realized they were doing Beshear a political favor, because he no longer has to make decisions that “determine how many people live and how many people die,” as he told The Associated Press last year.

Beshear has avoided talk of mandates, except masks in schools, which seem to have considerable public support; he has said he would require them if he still could. He says his administration isn’t even tracking school districts’ mask polices, which seems odd, but it fits what he said after he lost his emergency powers: “The legislature owns this pandemic moving forward.”

It’s not that simple; Beshear still has powers and responsibilities. But the public, having given him good marks for his work on the pandemic, is unlikely to change its collective mind about that. He inspired confidence, an essential for success in the job. He remains rhetorically challenged, often searching for the right word or phrase in the right order, but that may appeal to voters suspicious of sales pitches from slicker politicians.

All that being said, Kentucky is a Republican-trending state, and by the time Nov. 7, 2023, rolls around, it will probably have more voters registered as Republicans than as Democrats. It’s also a Donald Trump state, and if the Former Guy isn’t convicted or facing a publicly persuasive indictment by then, he is likely to be an effective campaigner for the Republican nominee. Who will that be? Stay tuned.

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One Comment

  1. Richard says:

    A republican trending state? The entire legislature is controlled by republicans. The senate since 2000 and the house since 2017. Kentucky has voted republican for president since 2000. If it was not for covid, I am not sure what Beshear would be doing right now. He is essentially a lame duck governor. The unpopularity of Biden and democrats on a national level is not helping his chances of re-election either.

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