FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, of Kentucky, criticized former President Donald Trump for dining with a white nationalist and gently distanced himself from current President Joe Biden as he tries to make own way in his 2023 bid for reelection in his Republican-dominated state.
Beshear filed for reelection this week, having drawn a crowded field of GOP challengers in a race that will be closely watched nationally, coming the year before the next presidential election. The race has been pegged as the Democratic Governors Association's top priority next year, but Beshear said he intends to make the election about the needs of Kentuckians.
"This campaign isn't going to be about national figures," Beshear said during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press at the state Capitol. "It's not going to be about any other figures. It's going to be about the people of Kentucky.
"So you shouldn't expect me to bring in anyone, whether they're popular or not popular in Kentucky," he added. "I'm willing to run on my record. I'm willing to run on my relationship with the people of Kentucky."
Beshear is seeking a second term on a platform highlighted by his economic development record and his support for expanded health care and for public education - including higher teacher pay. Governors Association spokesperson Sam Newton said this week that the organization is "ready to do whatever is needed to get the job done" in helping Beshear secure a second term.
Delving into national politics is a delicate issue for Democrats running for statewide office in Kentucky, but Beshear gave blunt critiques of the current and former president.
He rebuked Trump for dining with a white nationalist and said leaders across the political spectrum share a responsibility to denounce the threat of political violence. It was a rare public admonishment of the ex-president by the red-state governor.
"Donald Trump should never be having dinner with a white nationalist, ever," Beshear said.
Trump carried Kentucky by lopsided margins in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, and Beshear avoided talking about the Republican president in 2019, when Beshear narrowly ousted GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. Beshear said Wednesday that Trump - who has launched his third campaign for the White House - has an "important role" to play as a former president.
"And I think everybody would like ... to see him do it in the right way," the governor said. "President Trump still has so many people that look to him, especially here in Kentucky. He has an opportunity to be a role model, to be the very best of us."
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, whose bid for governor has been endorsed by Trump, proceeded cautiously when asked about Trump's dinner with Nick Fuentes, a far-right activist who has used his online platform to spew antisemitic and white nationalist rhetoric.
"I don't keep up with who the president is having dinner with," Cameron said last week.
In his interview, Beshear railed against the threat of political violence. The governor had his own brush with the risks associated with public service, when armed protesters gathered near his family's home and hanged him in effigy in 2020, The effigy was placed in a tree near the state Capitol during a protest rally in defense of constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms. The rally turned into a protest against coronavirus restrictions and Beshear's administration.
"Political violence is real," Beshear said in the interview. "It is unacceptable. It is a threat to democracy, and it should be denounced by every single public official each and every time.
"There is no room in our democracy - which is based on checks and balances, that are based on disagreement and ultimate agreement - for differences of opinion to become violent."
Beshear gave a mixed review when asked about Biden's job performance. The Democratic president was at the governor's side visiting tornado- and flood-stricken regions of Kentucky in the past year.
"There are things that I think have been done well, and there are things that I wish would have been done better," the governor said.
Beshear praised Biden for his massive infrastructure deal and for his efforts in helping Kentucky recover from tornadoes and flooding. But the governor has taken a much sharper tone with federal emergency officials, hounding them to do more for victims in the aftermath of catastrophic flooding that hit in eastern Kentucky in the summer.
"Certainly I'd like to see FEMA do better for our people," the governor said Wednesday. "Now that was an issue before the president took office. FEMA says 'no' way too often. And they say 'yes' way too little and in too little of amounts. With that said, we have been able to transform that agency in really important ways."
Beshear, 45, the son of former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, has won two statewide elections, for attorney general in 2015 and for governor in 2019. His national political stock will continue to rise if he wins reelection next year, but he batted away a question about whether he might someday run for president, saying his focus is on his job as governor.
He said record-setting private investment and job creation in the state are creating "a future for every other generation of Kentuckian that none of us could have ever dreamed about."
"That's a pretty amazing thing," he said. "And that's what I want to get done."