LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — President Joe Biden’s name won’t appear on the ballot anywhere in 2023, but you wouldn’t know it from the campaigns that Republican candidates for governor are running in Kentucky and Mississippi.
GOP nominees in both states — Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron and first-term Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves — are just as likely to mention the Democratic president as they are to name the person they face in the Nov. 7 general election.
Tying candidates for governor to national political figures is a well-worn strategy but also reflects an era of deepening ideological divides, according to Carrie Archie Russell, an expert on southern politics at Vanderbilt University. She says forging such links, even when there’s no evidence of a strong connection, allows candidates to create a “mental shortcut for identifying individuals as ‘us’ or ‘them.’”
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump won 62% of the vote in Kentucky and 58% in Mississippi in his loss to Biden.
“If you’re the Republican Party in these states and you’re hoping to generate large voter turnout for your Republican candidate, it makes sense to certainly vilify Joe Biden,” Russell said.
The Kentucky and Mississippi gubernatorial campaigns might well serve as messaging test drives for the 2024 presidential election year, when Biden is expected to be on the ballot. And while there’s a Republican incumbent in Mississippi and it’s a Democrat seeking a second term in Kentucky, the competitions bear striking similarities to each other.
In each state, the Democrat has a previously existing brand that could help distinguish them from the Republican effort to define them as Biden allies.
First-term Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is as apt to be referred to by his first name as his last. He’s a well-known figure in state politics who first appeared on the scene as the son of the last Democrat to win the governor’s office, Steve Beshear. He emerged from serving as the state’s attorney general to unseat the incumbent Republican governor, Matt Bevin, four years ago.
In Mississippi, it’s the opponent’s last name that carries additional weight. Democrat Brandon Presley is a cousin of rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley — which may explain why voters are just as likely to hear Biden’s name in attacks from Republicans. Rather than say Presley’s name during a recent appearance, Reeves referred to him as “that individual.”
Beshear has experience overcoming GOP efforts to nationalize a state campaign, narrowly defeating a Trump ally in 2019. Known as a disciplined campaigner who sticks closely to his script, he rarely mentions Biden or Trump and generally avoids wading into national politics, insisting there’s nothing partisan about a good job or new bridge.
Beshear has appeared with Biden during times of tragedy, consoling victims of tornadoes and flooding that hit Kentucky. In Mississippi, Reeves put aside anti-Biden rhetoric when he appeared with the president to survey tornado damage in March.
Cameron lumps Beshear with Biden on pocketbook issues. Beshear counters by touting his stewardship of the state during a period of record-setting growth in economic development.
“We can do something really special together to lift up every single family while moving our state forward,” Beshear said at a recent Jessamine County rally. “When I say every family, I mean it. Listen, I run as a proud Democrat. But the moment I’m done, I take off that hat and I serve every single Kentucky family as governor. I believe my job isn’t to move a state to the right or the left, but to move it forward for all of our people.”
Just as Reeves does in Mississippi, Cameron blames Biden’s economic policies for fueling sharply higher consumer prices that strain family budgets. Cameron wants voter dissatisfaction with Biden to extend to Beshear.
“They call it ’Bidenomics.’ I think the rest of us just call it 40-year high, record inflation,” Cameron said during a recent gubernatorial forum hosted by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Cameron has also set his sights on Biden’s energy policies, saying the results would be devastating in coal-producing Kentucky. The coal industry has declined considerably but is still viewed by many as a cornerstone of the Bluegrass State’s economy. Biden wants to convert the U.S. economy to renewable energy such as wind and solar power, while turning away from coal and other fossil fuels that produce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
In vowing to push back, Cameron said: “You need somebody that is willing to go against the grain of the far-left and the environmentalists that are trying to destroy our fossil fuels industry.”
In Mississippi, Reeves says the state has momentum under his leadership, with education improvements, the state’s largest income-tax cut, and a low unemployment rate. And he warns the state is under threat from Presley and national Democrats.
“To support him, you’ve got to believe we are on the wrong track,” Reeves said. “You’ve got to believe that our culture is wrong and that our values are bad. You’ve got to think that the state would be better off run by Bennie, Biden and Brandon.”
Bennie is Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only Democrat — and the only Black person — in Mississippi’s congressional delegation. Thompson was chairman of the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He is publicly supporting Presley in the governor’s race.
Presley, a utility regulator, says little about Biden, and he chafes at Reeves’ effort to bring national politics into the Mississippi governor’s contest. Instead, Presley talks about wanting to reduce Mississippi’s 7% tax on groceries, and he criticizes Reeves for opposing the expansion of Medicaid to people who work low-wage jobs that don’t provide private health insurance.
Presley also consistently tries to tie Reeves to a welfare misspending scandal that developed when Reeves was lieutenant governor and had the power to oversee how the state Department of Human Services was using money.
“Well, I say a vote for him is a vote for the corrupt system in place,” Presley said of Reeves. “A vote for him is a vote for a failing health care system. A vote for him is a vote for the highest sales tax on groceries in America. And you know, I’m my own man. Always have been. A vote for Brandon Presley is a vote for Brandon Presley.”
Emily Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson, Mississippi.