- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Five Democratic candidates for statewide office with little or no primary opposition held a campaign-style rally on Monday designed to promote unity in a party clinging to state politics as it fights to stay relevant in an increasingly Republican state.

Standing center stage was Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, the two-term incumbent who cannot seek re-election because of term limits. While most Kentucky Democrats spent the last election cycle fleeing the shadow of an unpopular president, they have no such qualms about Beshear, whose approval rating remains north of 50 percent despite seven years in office marred by a devastating economic recession and Beshear’s unapologetic embrace of the federal Affordable Care Act, despised by many here for its association with Barack Obama.

“In a state that overwhelmingly votes for Republicans, his numbers are fantastic,” University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss said. “Approval ratings tend to decline over time. … For him to have served as long as he has, and still have it be that high, it’s pretty impressive.”

Monday’s rally at the state Democratic Party Headquarters marked Beshear’s first campaign appearance for the 2015 elections, where all six of the state’s constitutional officers are on the ballot. Five of the six seats are currently held by Democrats, in contrast to the five of the state’s six congressional seats being held by Republicans. Both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats are Republican.

“If there is a disconnect in Kentucky, it’s between federal level politics and state politics,” Beshear said. “This race is pivotal for not only the Democratic Party of Kentucky, it’s pivotal for the future of Kentucky itself.”

Topping the ticket for Democrats is Jack Conway, the attorney general and failed U.S. Senate candidate who said he plans to campaign frequently with Beshear in the coming months.

Beshear will largely be remembered for his decision to expand Medicaid in Kentucky and to establish the state’s health insurance exchange, which has been lauded as a national model for health reform. The system has enrolled more than 500,000 people, including some who are getting health insurance for the first time. None of the four Republican candidates for governor have promised to repeal the Medicaid expansion. But some, including state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, have criticized the fact that 25 percent of the state’s population is now on Medicaid, a health insurance program for the poor.

Scott Jennings, the veteran Republican political consultant who worked in former President George W. Bush’s administration, said Beshear’s high approval ratings are in part due to the fact that he faced two politically wounded Republican candidates — former Gov. Ernie Fletcher and former Senate President David Williams — who did not have the resources to barrage voters with negative TV ads. Still, Jennings said the Republican candidates likely will not focus on Beshear and his administration in the coming campaign.

“That’s where we’ve got to be the contrast in the fall elections, a Republican Party that’s going to run on I think a robust creative policy platform and a Democratic Party that’s going to be trying to just, you know, argue that standing in place is good enough,” Jennings said.

Conway said he would seek to emulate Beshear’s “integrity and thoughtfulness,” but said he would be a different governor, mainly by putting more emphasis on job training for Kentucky’s workers.

“He’s done a really good job of going around and selling the state,” Conway said. “Almost the same emphasis as you have on economic development you also need to have in workforce development. That job training is going to be absolutely critical.”

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