Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is justifiably celebrated across his party in the wake of his reelection Tuesday, hailed as the rare example of a red-state Democrat who was able to defy his state’s conservative orientation and win even in places where the Democratic Party brand is toxic.
Naturally, amid the euphoria surrounding the Democratic election romp, there’s a burst of chatter about his prospects for national office.
If only. In recent decades, Democrats have had a habit of falling in love with their red-state success stories, only to ditch them when they attempt to apply their experience in presidential primaries.
The architecture of Beshear’s win is indeed something to marvel at, especially in a party that’s hemorrhaged the kinds of voters who boosted Beshear to victory. He managed to sidestep GOP efforts to nationalize the campaign by tying him to President Joe Biden, who is extremely unpopular in Kentucky, without major departures from the party line. And he did it in a state that anchors the northern end of the Trump Belt, a region of doom and Democratic desolation that stretches from Appalachia across the Upland South to Oklahoma.
But you don’t have to look far to find another similarly situated governor whose success defied the odds and seemed to offer a Democratic blueprint for how to win in rural and red states — former Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Like Beshear, Bullock won two terms as governor in a red state where Democratic fortunes have flagged. His 2016 reelection win was a political masterclass. At the top of the Montana ticket, Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. Republicans flipped three other statewide offices and expanded their legislative majorities. Yet Bullock held on despite the undertow, a rare bright spot on a grim evening for state and national Democrats.
Yet when Bullock ran for president in 2020, he got nowhere. His message was straightforward enough. On the heels of Trump’s 25-point win over rural voters in 2016, he argued, his track record made him uniquely suited to take on Trump. “As the only Democrat to win statewide re-election in a Trump state in 2016, I know firsthand: we must reach out to rural voters,” he tweeted in 2019.
That message didn’t seem to matter. Twenty Democratic candidates qualified for the first debate round in June 2019, but not Bullock. There were four little-known House members, two mayors and several candidates who had never been elected to any office at all on stage, but not the governor who won three consecutive statewide races in a state that had voted Democratic for president just once since 1964.
Bullock eventually appeared in one debate, but was forced to drop out of the race before the first primary votes were cast.
It’s a familiar story as the party’s standing has deteriorated among rural and red state voters. There’s always interest in a red-state whisperer who can bridge the divide and erase the impression that Democrats are a “coastal party of elites,” to use Bernie Sanders’ description. Yet it never gets very far beyond the curiosity stage.
Bullock’s predecessor as Montana governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, was another who drew mention as a national prospect, both as a potential veep to Barack Obama in 2008 and as a possible presidential contender in 2016. Missouri’s Jay Nixon was floated for a time. So was Beshear’s father, Steve Beshear, who served as Kentucky governor from 2007 to 2015.
One drawback, of course, is that all of these red-state winners are white men — an increasingly awkward fit to lead a diverse, multiracial party with a base comprised of women and voters of color. But it’s also true that Democrats aren’t truly convinced that they need what Beshear is offering. After all, Biden actually ran worse among rural voters than Clinton — and still managed to capture the White House.
In Beshear’s case, many aspects of his record will travel well — namely his focus on teacher salaries, infrastructure, pandemic leadership and his responsiveness during natural disasters. Yet there are elements of his tenure that may not survive deeper scrutiny by the national party. The political risks he took in supporting abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights and unions could be overshadowed by the things he didn’t talk about. As the governor of a coal-producing state, he took a pass on addressing climate change issues. The killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT who was shot and killed during a botched police raid of her apartment, also didn’t receive much airing during his campaign. Both issues would receive far more scrutiny in a presidential primary.
None of this diminishes Beshear’s victory — he ranks as one of the most popular governors in the nation for a reason. But it’s worth remembering where the party’s last four presidential nominees cut their political teeth — Boston, Chicago, New York and Wilmington.
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