Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky signals focus on family values in closely watched fall race

VERSAILLES, Ky. (AP) — As Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear prepares for what could be the most hotly contested election of the year, the first-term Democrat insisted on Wednesday that he would not cede so-called family values issues to his Republican opponent.

In his first sit-down interview since Tuesday's primary, Beshear also tried to contrast his steady leadership with the just-concluded bitter GOP campaign in which state Attorney General Daniel Cameron prevailed in a 12-candidate field. The governor told The Associated Press that he intends to make the general election race about helping families and not trying to “rile people up,” and he accused Cameron of doing just that in his victory speech.

“I think sadly from the other side, what we saw last night and what we’ll see is name-calling, stoking division, trying to incite fear or anger or maybe even hatred. And that’s not how we’re supposed to run these elections,” Beshear said.

Cameron, buoyed by an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, finished 26 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft, was a disappointing third after a campaign that mostly centered around her and Cameron.

The much scrutinized off-year matchup between Beshear and Cameron in November could provide insight about voter sentiment heading into the 2024 elections that will determine control of the White House and Congress. The race will test the strength of a popular Democratic governor in a Republican-dominated state who hopes the reputation he forged as the state’s consoler in chief during a tumultuous four years will be enough to propel him to a second term.

Cameron, one of the most prominent Black Republicans in the country and a former aide to GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell, came out swinging in a primary night speech.

“The new religion of the left casts doubt on the greatness of America,” Cameron, 37, said. “They embrace a picture of this country and this commonwealth that is rooted in division, that is hostile to faith and that is committed to the erosion of our education system.”

The AP reached out to Cameron for an interview, but his campaign did not immediately make him available.

Beshear, 45, said he sees similarities between this year’s race and his run in 2019, when he defeated GOP Gov. Matt Bevin.

"If you look at this last primary, I think that you are seeing the same nastiness, the same turning people against each other,” Beshear said.

Much like that contest, Beshear said he has no plans to campaign with national Democrats, including President Joe Biden. Beshear relies on his family’s strong political brand in Kentucky, where his father, Steve Beshear, is a former two-term governor.

“This is about us, not Washington, D.C. Everything you’re going to hear me talk about in this election is about our families and how we move them ahead — not right, not left, but forward," Beshear said.

Biden joined Beshear to console the victims of tornadoes and flooding that hit Kentucky during the governor's first term. Asked if he was bracing for opposition ads showing pictures of him and Biden together, Beshear said, “It would be pretty callous, I think, for somebody to use photos of showing up at the toughest of times against somebody.”

In his speech Tuesday night, Cameron tried to tie Beshear to Biden's immigration policies, lambasted the governor's record on crime and drugs and criticized him for vetoing legislation barring transgender girls and women from participating in school sports matching their gender identity. The Republican-led legislature overrode Beshear's veto.

“A governor who will not speak out on these issues, and who will not stand up for your interests, has abdicated his responsibility to the commonwealth and is not fit to lead it any longer,” Cameron said.

This year, Beshear vetoed a bill banning transgender young people from receiving gender-affirming health care. That veto also was overridden. Beshear has come under GOP criticism for the veto.

Beshear said Wednesday that every youngster should be treated “as a child of God.”

“At the end of the day, I think what’s been done here attacks parents’ rights, and I believe medical decisions for children are best left to their parents and not big government stepping in,” he said.

Beshear said he is ready to run on a record of economic growth, support for public schools and increased help for people battling drug addiction.

The governor noted that hundreds of Kentucky National Guard soldiers have been deployed to the nation’s southwest border during his term in office. Kentucky will continue to “do our part when asked,” he said, declaring that “border security is national security.”

He pointed to advances in providing clean drinking water to Kentuckians and getting a new Ohio River bridge built to ease traffic congestion between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. A bridge “isn’t red or blue, it’s just really important for our families,” the governor said.

Beshear now faces an electorate that has turned increasingly Republican since he won the office. He said voters will hear a message from him driven by faith and values, not partisan politics.

“For me, my values are rooted in my faith,” Beshear said. “And my faith teaches me that we’re supposed to live with love and compassion, not anger and division."

Cameron is the first major-party Black nominee for governor in Kentucky’s history. "To anyone who looks like me, know that you can achieve anything," he said after winning the nomination.

To Beshear, "it's taken far too long to have a Black nominee of either party for governor. But I think what the attorney general said last night is right, that in this campaign people are going to judge us by our record and our values."