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Swing-county Kentucky voters weigh their choices for governor in closely watched off-year election

Mark Cook loads lumber onto a trailer, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Bowling Green, Ky. Voters across Kentucky are making their choices ahead of the Nov. 7 gubernatorial showdown between Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and his GOP challenger, Daniel Cameron. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
George Walker IV
Mark Cook loads lumber onto a trailer, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Bowling Green, Ky. Voters across Kentucky are making their choices ahead of the Nov. 7 gubernatorial showdown between Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and his GOP challenger, Daniel Cameron. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — Republican voter Mark Cook stuck with his party in Kentucky's last election for governor. Next month, he's leaning toward crossing over to support the Democrat he voted against in 2019, Gov. Andy Beshear.

Cook is a steadfast supporter of former President Donald Trump, a Republican, and has only disdain for Democratic President Joe Biden. But Cook views one of the nation's most closely watched off-year elections through a prism firmly grounded in the Bluegrass State. He thinks Beshear, known to many Kentuckians as much by his first name as his last, has been a good steward of the state's economy.

“He's brought a lot of work to Kentucky,” Cook said last week while picking up lumber at a hardware store on the outskirts of Bowling Green. “I’ve seen what he’s done. I’m satisfied what he’s doing.”

Voters across Kentucky, from Appalachia to the banks of the Mississippi River, are weighing their decision in the Nov. 7 race between Beshear and Republican Daniel Cameron, the state's attorney general. Once again, Warren County, which includes the leafy, fast-growing college town of Bowling Green, looms as a potential swing area.

It's also a place that political observers will be watching for an early read on voter sentiment heading into next year's national elections, though Kentuckians have shown a willingness to look beyond party politics.

Four years ago, Beshear carried the county by about 1,130 votes. It helped deliver his margin of victory over then-Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, by about 5,100 votes statewide. In 2020, Trump won the county by more than 9,000 votes and captured the state.

Cameron and Beshear have campaigned in Bowling Green, which is 122 miles (196 kilometers) southwest of Louisville, to shore up support in this south-central city that is home to Western Kentucky University and the National Corvette Museum, a big draw for fans of the classic American car.

As a regional center, Bowling Green is important, but in a close election “the margins in almost all counties will matter,” said Western Kentucky political science professor Scott Lasley. “Picking up an extra thousand votes in Fayette County (Lexington) can be as important as winning toss-up counties.”

Plenty of Kentuckians are still deciding whether to reward Beshear with a second term or replace him with Cameron. Those undecided voters included Carol Martin of Bowling Green, who wanted to hear more from both candidates.

Martin, who co-owned a trucking company before retirement, said she planned to watch their debates — the next one is Monday, at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights — but had already tuned out the barrage of campaign commercials from both sides.

“I’m still getting information on both," Martin said while stopping for lunch at a cafe known for its catfish and fried bologna.

Martin voted for Beshear four years ago. She said she “didn’t have much choice” as she shared a biting critique of Bevin. She said she’s evaluating the “pros and cons” of this year's candidates. She likes Beshear’s support for teachers and said Cameron has made “a lot of good promises.”

“But all of them have good promises,” she added.

In a state that has veered hard toward Republicans in recent years, Martin is the kind of voter Cameron will have to keep in the party fold. In Warren County, area legislators and most county officials are Republicans.

“Everybody around here used to be a Democrat. Not anymore,” said Dale Chaffin, also part of the lunchtime crowd.

Chaffin, now retired after working in the equipment rental business, said he switched to the GOP years ago and intends to vote for Cameron.

Still, the things people talk about reflect what's been discussed in campaign speeches and ads. Some Bowling Green-area voters who had already made up their mind pointed to abortion and pandemic policies as reasons for backing Beshear or Cameron. Education was also a factor.

Donald Kubeny said he settled on Cameron after the Republican nominee said he would sign a bill easing Kentucky's abortion ban to allow exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

That has been a journey for the candidate, reflecting the new realities of abortion politics since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Cameron has struggled to appeal to both abortion hard-liners and moderates who support exceptions to the state's near-total ban. Cameron said he still supports the current law requiring victims of rape and incest to carry their pregnancies to term. But his stated willingness to sign rape and incest exceptions was good enough for Kubeny.

“I believe him," the retiree said while strolling through a downtown Bowling Green park. "He does what he says he’s going to do, and that’s a good thing.”

Abortion policies influenced Linda King's choice as well, just not in the same way. The registered independent said she supports Beshear and sees Cameron as “way too conservative" on abortion and other matters.

"He wants less government but then he wants to tell people what to do,” King said while eating lunch in the park.

The partisan split over pandemic-era politics surfaced, too.

Gary Jolly, a Republican who had stopped for lunch, sided with Cameron, saying the governor “overstepped his bounds.”

But Susann Davis, a retired educator and Beshear supporter, praised the governor for his response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, which dominated the first half of his term. Beshear's regular briefings became a fixture during the height of the pandemic. His updates were part reassuring pep talk and part sermon on how to contain the virus.

“I realize that there were economic consequences, but I value human life more,” Davis said at a downtown coffee shop. “And I think that his communication with Kentuckians was very important during that time.”

Another Beshear supporter, 21-year-old Olivia Thomas, said the governor did “as well as he could” in confronting the health threat. She called Beshear "a breath of fresh air.”

The governor wielded his executive power to impose restrictions meant to curb the virus. The GOP-dominated legislature reined in his authority, and Cameron successfully defended that pushback in court.

Cameron said the governor's clampdown hurt businesses and caused children to fall behind in school. Beshear said his actions reflected guidance from Trump's administration and saved lives. The pandemic is blamed for more than 19,000 deaths in Kentucky.

Former state Rep. Patti Minter, a Bowling Green Democrat, said Beshear has shown “the courage to do the right thing when it’s not always easy to do it.” She predicted that local voters will remember how the governor delivered for the town — from storm relief after a tornado struck in late 2021 to a new factory tied to the electric vehicle battery sector that will become a major regional employer.

“He gets stuff done," Minter said. "And what you see is what you get.”

A Republican lawmaker from Bowling Green had a different view. State Sen. Mike Wilson pointed to policy disputes between Beshear and the GOP-dominated legislature as evidence that Cameron would be better positioned to get things done.

"Kentuckians should vote for Daniel because he will work with the legislature to provide relief for our families and businesses,” he said.

Martin, the undecided retiree still sizing up the candidates, was less forgiving about the signals being sent by both candidates and their allies.

“The commercials are very deceiving," she said. "It’s mudslinging time.”

This story was originally published by The Associated Press.

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