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How to Thrive in Hostile Partisan Terrain

Originally published by Alan Greenblatt for Governing

Running for a second term as Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear improved on his performance from four years ago, when he ousted an unpopular incumbent, Matt Bevin. So how was a Democrat able to win a second term in Kentucky – a state that otherwise elects only Republicans to statewide office – when the most recent Republican governor was not?

One of Beshear’s strengths, paradoxically, was institutional weakness. The GOP majorities in the Legislature can override him with simple majority votes. Beshear could thus veto bills – such as those restricting transgender rights – but they passed into law anyway, which kept conservative voters from getting grumpy. And Beshear has proven good at the less partisan, more managerial aspects of the job, including response to disasters. “Whether it was tornados in the western part of the state or flooding in the eastern part or the state, or his daily COVID briefings, people saw Beshear in their living rooms and he became ‘Andy,’” says Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political scientist.

Some special circumstances may have been at play, but what worked for Beshear has worked for other governors who are a seeming mismatch politically with their states. Some of the most popular governors in the country in recent years have been Northeastern Republicans presiding over otherwise blue or purple states, including Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, as well as former governors such as Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Voters sometimes like a governor who can act as a brake on the legislature – and vice versa. “They differentiate themselves from national Democrats,” says Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, referring to Laura Kelly and recent Kansas Democratic governors. “You won’t hear a word about Hakeem Jeffries or President Biden.”

It’s not just about posing as moderate – it helps actually to be a moderate. Kelly doesn’t always get along with the GOP legislative majorities, but she breaks from her own party occasionally on environmental or immigration-related issues. Such governors need to establish their own brands, says Democratic strategist Jared Leopold. In that regard, he suggests, it hasn’t hurt Beshear or Sununu that their fathers also served before them as governors.

But being governor is a prominent enough job that it’s still possible to establish an identity that’s distinct from the national party in ways that have become nearly impossible at the legislative or congressional level. Actually running a state – including responding to disasters – allows governors like Beshear the chance to demonstrate to residents that they have their best interests at heart, even if they fly a different party’s colors.

“Executive races are leadership elections and can sometimes outweigh the very heavy partisan gravitational pull that exists in American politics today,” Leopold says. “If people know you and don’t have a reason to fire you, it’s easier to get re-elected than it is to get elected the first time.”

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