All eyes may be on 2024, but 2023 is an important election year for some states, not least Kentucky. Top of the card is Gov. Andy Beshear, and whether the Democrat incumbent can win again in a typically red state, potentially launching himself into the 2028 presidential conversation. This Washington Examiner series, Democracy Derby, will take a closer look at Beshear’s prospects, the make-up of the Bluegrass State as a whole, and whether Sen. Mitch McConnell’s health may raise the stakes.
If Democrats manage to keep the governorship in one of the reddest states in the blue column this November, Hadley Duvall will be a name to remember.
Duvall tells the story about being raped by her stepfather when she was just 12 years old. She became pregnant while in the seventh grade. She eventually miscarried but is speaking out against no-exceptions abortion bans.
“Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” she said in the statewide ad taken out by Beshear’s reelection campaign.
“This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” Duvall continued. “To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather, who raped her, is unthinkable. I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options. Daniel Cameron would give us none.”
After Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court last year, Kentucky passed an abortion ban that did not contain exceptions for rape or incest. It does allow abortion to save the mother from death or debilitating injury. Cameron supported the legislation.
A previous Beshear ad focusing on abortion featured a Louisville prosecutor saying Cameron thought rapists should have more rights than their victims.
Since the second of the two spots, Cameron has come out and said he would sign rape and incest exceptions into law if sent a bill by Kentucky’s Republican-controlled state legislature. The 37-year-old Republican called Beshear’s latest ad “despicable.”
“He lectures us on partisanship and unity and then runs disgusting, false attacks,” Cameron said. “I’ve said if the legislature were to bring me a bill with exceptions, I would sign it.”
During a candidates forum at which both Beshear and Cameron appeared, they were asked to say something nice about each other. “I would have had a lot of nice things to say about him until he ran that ad against me today,” Cameron said.
Most recent polls show Beshear leading the governor’s race by 8 to 10 points, despite President Joe Biden’s unpopularity in Kentucky.
“Listen, it is clear where Daniel Cameron is and where he’s been,” Beshear told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “But with seven weeks to go to an election, he finds himself down, and desperate people will say anything.”
The race could be the latest setback for anti-abortion forces in what is supposed to be friendly, relatively conservative territory. This includes a recent defeat on a ballot initiative in Ohio, which followed similar votes in Kansas and elsewhere. Kentucky itself rejected a measure finding no right to abortion in the state constitution last year.
Abortion tended to be an issue Democrats ran from in Southern states. Both of Kentucky’s senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, are Republicans who oppose abortion in most cases. Former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Cameron, beat Biden in Kentucky in 2020 with 62% of the vote.
Trump, who appointed three of the justices who reversed Roe and got them confirmed under McConnell’s leadership, has nevertheless counseled Republicans to avoid the controversies that now ensnare his preferred candidate in the Kentucky governor’s race.
“Like President Ronald Reagan before me, I support the three exceptions, for rape, incest, and the life of the mother,” Trump said earlier this year, in what has become a standard part of his 2024 stump speech. “In terms of running, you have to go with your heart; you have to go with what you want. But to me, the three exceptions are very important. I think to a large portion of people on this issue are very important.”
“I have to tell you from a conservative and Republican standpoint, you have to learn how to talk about pro-life, you have to learn how to talk about that decision,” Trump said of Roe’s reversal. “Because you don’t know how to talk about it.”
Republican operatives who have advised anti-abortion campaigns downplayed the significance of the issue to the Kentucky gubernatorial contest, noting that Beshear is one of the most popular Democratic governors in the country.
But one such operative told the Washington Examiner that it was “disheartening” to see Republicans struggling on abortion in a race that pits two candidates against each other.
The operative argued that ballot initiatives are devoid of personality and more easily swung by liberal media bias, which combative and assertive candidates can counteract.