In Kentucky, a Democratic governor gains new fans: Republicans

Why We Wrote This

As they confront a pandemic, governors are seeing their popularity soar. Kentucky’s Andy Beshear is winning plaudits for a calm, pragmatic approach that some see as a model for bridging the partisan divide.

Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Frankfort on March 29, 2020. Mr. Beshear’s nightly briefings on the pandemic have won him fans from both parties, who say they appreciate his pragmatic approach and lack of politicking.

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Every evening, he begins the same way. “We will get through this,” says Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear shortly after taking the podium. “And we will get through this together.” 

Governor Beshear may not be speaking from one of the nation’s COVID-19 “hot spots,” but his nightly 5 p.m. press briefings have become a reassuring ritual for the Bluegrass State, with more than a dozen self-identified conservative Kentuckians interviewed by the Monitor offering unabashed praise for their Democratic governor. He presents practical advice, such as how to explain the current situation to children, as well as new executive orders, such as pausing housing evictions and expanding unemployment eligibility.

Most important, say his conservative supporters, Mr. Beshear is staying true to the “together” part of his opening statement by avoiding partisan language and blame shifting. Just a few months after beating an unpopular incumbent governor, Mr. Beshear is proving it’s possible to effectively communicate with both Republicans and Democrats during a crisis.

“He has given me hope that we can turn this around,” says Dominique Dye, a stay-at-home mom from Lexington who did not vote for Mr. Beshear but is now a vocal fan. “Both the coronavirus and our country’s polarization.”

Every evening, he begins the same way. “We will get through this,” says Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear shortly after taking the podium. “And we will get through this together.” 

No state has been spared from COVID-19, and while Governor Beshear may not be speaking from one of the nation’s “hot spots,” his nightly 5 p.m. briefings have become a reassuring ritual for Kentuckians. Mothers pause their dinner preparation to turn up the TV’s volume, and 20-somethings tune in to online watch parties. 

Members of both parties in the Bluegrass State say Mr. Beshear’s daily briefings are a comforting antidote to these anxious times, with more than a dozen self-identified conservative Kentuckians interviewed by the Monitor offering unabashed praise for their Democratic governor. Dominique Dye, a stay-at-home mom from Lexington who voted for Mr. Beshear’s Republican opponent just four months ago, has found herself creating and sharing memes in a pro-Beshear Facebook group of more than 180,000. Some of the governor’s most popular phrases from his briefings are even being marketed on T-shirts and mugs, with proceeds going to the state’s COVID-19 relief funds.  

He isn’t the only governor enjoying a surge in popularity right now. A recent national poll found strong bipartisan support for state executives, with almost 75% of Americans approving of their governor’s handling of the crisis. Republican Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland have won widespread praise for taking decisive action early. Some governors have hit record approval ratings, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose daily briefings have made him something of a national star. Mr. Beshear’s audience is far smaller than Governor Cuomo’s, but his fans appear equally ardent.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Every night the newly elected governor updates his state calmly and confidently, but without fear-mongering, many Kentuckians say. He presents both practical advice, such as how to explain the current situation to children, as well as the state’s detailed containment plan. He announces new executive orders to make daily life easier, such as pausing all housing evictions and expanding unemployment eligibility.

Most important, say his conservative supporters, Mr. Beshear is staying true to the “together” part of his opening statement by avoiding partisan language and blame shifting. Like other U.S. governors elected in states that lean to the opposing party, Mr. Beshear campaigned as a moderate who would reach across the aisle. But locals say he’s done more than that, just a few months after barely beating a widely unpopular incumbent governor. He’s proving it’s possible to effectively communicate with both Republicans and Democrats during a crisis.

“He has given me hope that we can turn this around,” says Ms. Dye. “Both the coronavirus and our country’s polarization.”

Ms. Dye says she’s never voted for a Democrat before, but if Mr. Beshear runs for reelection in 2024, she will not only vote for him, she will volunteer for his campaign. Her mother, Deborah Dye, vowed she would never vote for a Democrat after seeing how the party treated President Donald Trump – but says she’ll break that promise for Mr. Beshear. 

“He’s doing what I wish all politicians would do, which is set aside the politics of it and focus on what’s good for the country,” says Deborah Dye. 

When reporters try to “bait” Mr. Beshear with questions about the federal response, or other states, he typically redirects the conversation. After President Trump said last week that he would like the country back up and running by Easter, for example, Mr. Beshear was asked during his daily press conference if he considered the president’s statement “realistic.” The governor didn’t reference the president in his answer, instead saying that Americans need to be prepared to sacrifice more and wait longer to protect one another. 

“I just hear a lot of Trump bashing around this,” says Cathy Samuels, a registered nurse from Louisville, who voted for President Trump in 2016 and plans to vote for him again in November. She didn’t vote for Mr. Beshear, and if the election was held again tomorrow, she’s not sure she would change her vote. But for now, she appreciates how Mr. Beshear seems to be looking out for all of Kentucky, not just his own party. “I appreciate the fact that Beshear is not politicking this right now.” 

“I’m starting to question whether he’s a Democrat or not,” says Ms. Dye, laughing. “I’m even starting to question if he’s a politician – and I love that.”

Of course, not everyone in Kentucky is happy with how their governor is handling things. 

Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP
Harry Powell works to change the marquee at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky, March 18, 2020. The theater has closed following an executive order from Gov. Andy Beshear asking all public-facing businesses to close to help fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Similar to the partisan debate happening at the national level, some Kentucky conservatives believe the governor’s efforts to fight the pandemic have gone too far, unnecessarily hurting the economy. On March 19, a Republican legislator filed an amendment to a bill in the Kentucky state house allowing residents to sue the state if an executive order adversely affects their business. And Mr. Beshear has drawn criticism from the left, with some environmental advocates accusing the governor of using COVID-19 as a smokescreen to sign a new law criminalizing fossil fuel protests

But his ability to communicate without “coded” language could offer a lesson for other politicians, says Stephen Voss, an associate professor of politics at the University of Kentucky. Instead of talking about the essential role of government in protecting public health, for example, Mr. Beshear is talking about the essential role of community. The governor’s daily briefings have become “the social media version of FDR’s fireside chats,” says Mr. Voss, blending comfort with competence.  

“The lesson here is that in a crisis of this sort, where people are fearful, they don’t look at the government the same way they do under normal circumstances,” says Mr. Voss. “It’s not about ideology right now.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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