In the 2023 Kentucky gubernatorial election, SURJ National organized to support the re-election of Governor Andy Beshear in our Fight Like Hell for Kentucky campaign. SURJ has deep roots in Kentucky, and this electoral work added to the people power we built in 2022 in contributing to a statewide effort to beat Kentucky’s anti-abortion Amendment 2. We recognize that no one politician can fix the struggles of Kentuckians, but we are committed to building power in a variety of ways – including in meeting electoral political moments. In our campaigns with white voters, SURJ works to break the power that the far right wields over working white people by meeting them in their material struggles, while not avoiding “divisive” issues– like trans rights and abortion. Spoiler alert: we won, and we won big.
Daniel Cameron, Beshear’s MAGA-aligned opponent, was Attorney General at the time of Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police. He even called her killing “justified,” and he was instrumental in the coverup of her murder. Cameron is also a large part of the Republican Attorneys General Association, who sent out robocalls to rally people to come to January 6. And, he lied about it. His campaign messaging included supporting SB 150, the controversial anti-LGBTQ+ bill that regulates pronoun usage, bathroom usage, and lifesaving healthcare for young people in Kentucky. More than anything, Cameron’s campaign centered around completely blocking access to reproductive justice in the state of Kentucky – the year after Kentuckians voted to protect abortion access. This elevated conversations around this election to a national stage, and this election became a projection of how talking about abortion fairs for far right politicians. This election is also proof that the divide-and-conquer strategy of the far right is not a water-tight strategy with working white people.
We talked to tens of thousands of white, working class Kentuckians, and we repeatedly had conversations with folks about how Andy Beshear has addressed people’s suffering. From the pandemic, to the floods of Eastern Kentucky, to the tornadoes of Western Kentucky, to accessibility to good jobs, people felt like Beshear’s platforms reached them in their material reality. Further, Beshear did not shy away from talking about issues like abortion, COVID-19, and trans rights. As both parties vie for white working class voters, it was further confirmed in this election that the answer is not to ignore the “difficult” topics, but instead to meet people in their real suffering, focus on what matters, and expose the far right’s tactics as nothing more than a divide-and-conquer distraction from their abandonment of working people.
We organized over 600 SURJ members on the ground in Kentucky and across the country reached just shy of half a million voters, had 71,000 conversations, and secured over 10,000 commitments to vote. We talked to voters in majority-white, working class counties who were either unlikely to vote or unlikely to vote for a Democrat. Compared to his first run in 2019, we expanded Beshear’s win in four counties, most notably Letcher – a highly rural, old coal mining community where we ran billboards and knocked doors. In 2019, Beshear lost Letcher County, but this year, in large part due to our efforts, he won by 5 points.
By winning this election and doing our part by bringing in white, working class voters, we expanded our movement. On a national stage, we showed that these folks are worthy of relational conversations. We showed that, when invited, white people will enthusiastically join us in fights for racial and economic justice.
We showed that when we fight like hell for Kentucky, we win.