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Embrace the Andy Beshear moment. This won’t last.


The architecture of Beshear’s victory is indeed something to marvel at, especially in a party that lost the type of voters who propelled Beshear to victory. He managed to circumvent the Republican Party’s efforts to nationalize the campaign by tying it to President Joe Biden, extremely unpopular in Kentucky, without deviating from the party line. And he did it in a state that anchors the northern end of the Trump Belt, a region of Democratic doom and gloom that stretches from Appalachia to the southern highlands to the Oklahoma.

But you don’t have to look far to find another similarly situated governor whose success has defied the odds and appears to offer a Democratic model for how to win in rural, red states: former Gov. Democrat from Montana, Steve Bullock.

Like Beshear, Bullock won two terms as governor in a red state where Democrats’ fortunes faltered. His re-election in 2016 was a true political masterclass. At the top of the Montana ranking, Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. Republicans flipped three more statewide offices and expanded their legislative majority. Still, Bullock held his ground despite the backlash, a rare bright spot in a dark evening for state and national Democrats.

Yet when Bullock ran for president in 2020, he got nowhere. His message was quite simple. On the heels of Trump’s 25-point victory over rural voters in 2016, he argued, his background made him uniquely suited to take on Trump. “As the only Democrat to win statewide re-election to Trump in 2016, I know this firsthand: We need to reach out to rural voters,” he tweeted in 2019.

This message didn’t seem to matter. Twenty Democratic candidates qualified for the first round of debate in June 2019, but not Bullock. On stage were four little-known House members, two mayors, and several candidates who had never been elected to any office, but not the governor who won three consecutive statewide elections in one state who had only voted Democratic once since 1964. .

Bullock eventually appeared in a 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 the Democrats are a “coastal party of elites,” to use Bernie Sanders’ description. However, we never go beyond the stage of curiosity.

Bullock’s predecessor as governor of Montana, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, has also been mentioned as a potential candidate nationally, both as a potential challenger to Barack Obama in 2008 and as a potential presidential candidate in 2016. Missouri’s Jay Nixon was pitched for a while. So was Beshear’s father, Steve Beshear, who served as governor of Kentucky from 2007 to 2015.

One downside, of course, is that all of these red-state winners are white men — an increasingly tricky situation for leading a diverse, multiracial party with a base made up of women and voters of color. But it’s also true that Democrats aren’t really convinced they need what Beshear is proposing. After all, Biden actually performed worse among rural voters than Clinton — and still managed to capture the White House.

In Beshear’s case, many aspects of his record will be appreciated, including his focus on teacher salaries, infrastructure, pandemic leadership and his responsiveness during natural disasters. Yet some elements of his mandate may not stand up to closer scrutiny from the national party. The political risks he took in supporting abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights and unions could be overshadowed by things he hasn’t talked about. As governor of a coal-producing state, he neglected to address climate change issues. The murder of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT who was shot and killed during a botched police raid on her apartment, also didn’t get much publicity during her campaign. Both of these issues would receive much greater scrutiny in a presidential primary.

None of this diminishes Beshear’s victory: He ranks among the most popular governors in the country for good reason. But it’s worth remembering where the party’s last four presidential candidates cut their political teeth: Boston, Chicago, New York and Wilmington.



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