Beshear offers defense on issues looming in reelection bid

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear defended his record Thursday on a host of challenges — the pandemic, high consumer prices, crime and drug deaths — that are sure to surface next year when the Democrat seeks a second term.

Some topics came up at his weekly news conference on the heels of recent developments — whether it was the governor and his wife receiving the new COVID-19 booster or the latest news on the inflation front.

The governor fell back on talking points he’s used in the past and will likely use again as the campaign heats up. As more Republicans jump into Kentucky’s 2023 governor’s race, the criticism of the incumbent is already ratcheting up.

Beshear didn’t mention the Republican candidates vying to challenge him as they jockey for support in the ultra-competitive GOP primary campaign. His defense came two days after Kelly Craft linked the governor to President Joe Biden while complaining of “Democrat-made disasters of lockdowns, inflation, crime and drugs” as she launched her GOP campaign for governor.

The governor has spent much of his term in crisis management mode, beset by the pandemic, devastating tornadoes last December in western Kentucky and historic flooding in July in eastern Kentucky. He’s also dealt with economic turmoil that included skyrocketing inflation.

On the inflation front, Beshear on Thursday highlighted the drop in gasoline prices, noting the pump price had nudged below $3 a gallon in Frankfort. The statewide average is $3.31 per gallon, he remarked, nearly 40 cents lower than the national average and reflecting a steady decline in recent months.

“I know that those prices are still challenging, but they’re moving the right way,” Beshear said, while acknowledging that “inflation is still with us,” especially on food prices.

While stating that a governor “can’t control gas prices,” Beshear recited steps he took to try to help cushion Kentuckians from inflation and sky-high fuel prices. He pointed to his executive actions to freeze vehicle property tax rates and prevent the state gas tax from rising. And he noted assistance programs meant to spare people from eviction and to help with child care, internet or energy costs.

“We’ve got to get through these tough days to get to really exciting days — all these jobs that we’re announcing.” said Beshear, who is making the state’s record-setting economic development growth a focal point of his campaign.

State Republican Party spokesman Sean Southard called it a “poor attempt” by Beshear to “insulate himself” from Biden’s policies. Craft said in trying to link Beshear to the Democratic president on Tuesday that high inflation is “robbing people of their incomes and their retirement savings.”

Discussing his efforts to combat crime, Beshear noted his support for large salary increases for state police troopers and increased training stipends for law enforcement.

“Through those investments, we’re investing in the safety of our families,” the governor said.

To combat the state’s drug addiction scourge, Beshear pointed to his long-running support for efforts to steer people into treatment programs to overcome addiction. During his term as attorney general, he said, he sued opioid manufacturers and distributors. Fatal drug overdoses rose nearly 15% in Kentucky last year, surpassing 2,000 deaths — a record death toll in the state.

Beshear, however, takes the most heat from Republicans for his COVID-related restrictions on businesses and gatherings earlier in his term.

On Thursday, the governor was asked to reflect on the state’s response to the pandemic and how it might be judged by future generations.

“It was an enemy that we didn’t know a lot about in the beginning,” he said. “And it’s changed a ton with each of the variants. So the decisions we made have certainly been battlefield decisions. And I think in context, people will see that they were the best decisions that we could make.”

Last month at the Fancy Farm picnic, the state’s premiere political event, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ryan Quarles branded Beshear as the pandemic’s “shutdown governor.” Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, another gubernatorial candidate, successfully challenged Beshear’s COVID-19 restrictions in a case that reached the state’s highest court.

Beshear says his actions reflected guidance from former President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force and, more importantly, saved lives.