Steve Beshear is 72 years old, out of office and on nobody’s shortlist of presidential contenders, making him a seemingly odd choice among all Democrats to respond to President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.
But the former Kentucky governor’s allies say no Democrat is better positioned to rebut Trump as the president and a Republican Congress push to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
For years, Democrats have regarded Kentucky as the health care law’s model state, where the ACA has done the most good and had the fewest problems. And party officials say that success is thanks to Beshear, the two-term governor who ran the state after Congress approved the law in 2010.
That makes him the law’s best advocate – even if he’s not usually the type of politician asked to fill such a high-profile, but often fraught, role.
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The selection of the governor surprised one former aide for “about three seconds.”
“You’ve got 500,000 Kentuckians who have health care because of the Affordable Care Act and Steve Beshear’s effort,” said Jim Cauley, the governor’s former chief of staff. “He can speak to that in a way that’s authentic.”
It’s not the first time Beshear has been in the national ACA spotlight. He attended the State of the Union address in 2014, when President Obama praised the governor as a “man possessed when it comes to covering the commonwealth’s families.”
Back then, Democrats were fighting off criticism over the implementation of online, state-based health care exchanges. The websites worked poorly, if at all, and Democrats and President Obama took political heat for their failure.
Now, with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, the law faces an existential threat. GOP officials have promised to repeal the law – known widely and often derisively as Obamacare – for years, and say replacing it with a plan of their own is a top legislative priority in 2017.
That has Democrats preparing for an epic fight, one they hope Beshear can help them with. They’re hopeful that the millions of people who have received health care coverage because of the law will turn out to oppose its repeal.
Kentucky has benefited more than most: a Census Bureau report released last year that showed its uninsured rate had dropped from 14 percent in 2013 to 6 percent in 2015.
“All of these people have been given coverage – that’s a very big plus,” said Charlotte Lundergan, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Kentucky. “With Donald Trump wanting to take away the health care law, I think Steve Beshear is the best person to oppose whatever he has to say.”
Democrats have reason to think that the health care fight might be turning in their favor. Republican lawmakers have been inundated at town hall events in their districts and states with constituents angry over the potential repeal of the law.
Republicans say the complaints come mostly from paid activists not representative of the broader electorate, but public opinion polls suggest voters are viewing the law more favorably.
A survey in February from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on health issues, found 48 percent of adults have a favorable view of the law, compared with 42 percent who have an unfavorable view.
It was the first time since August of 2015 that more Americans saw the law more favorably than not, according to Kaiser.
Beshear ran Kentucky from 2007 to 2015, leaving as one of the few Democratic governors left in a state that votes Republican in presidential races. Beshear won re-election in 2011 with 55 percent of the vote – a year later, when President Obama won for re-election, he won just 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky.
His red-state credentials make him attractive to a party that has struggled to win voters outside major urban areas, usually located on either coast.
“He was often running against the grain, and he was able to not only survive but thrive in an environment that is really challenging today,” said Jim Gray, the Democratic mayor of Lexington.
He was unable to transfer his success to his successor, however. Two years ago, Kentucky voters elected a Republican, Matt Bevin, to replace Beshear in office, despite the GOP candidate’s vows to pull back from the health care law.
The high-profile platform afforded Beshear might, to some, raise questions about future plans for office. But his allies laugh off those rumors, saying he’s more interested in defending his legacy than seeking another office.
“He’s said many times that he’s run his last campaign in 2011,” Cauley said. “And I take him at his word there. There’s nothing to report.”