WASHINGTON/FRANKFORT, Ky. (CNN) – As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated his chamber’s $2 trillion coronavirus response package, he was turning to a Democrat in his home state for advice: Gov. Andy Beshear.
McConnell and Beshear have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, as McConnell shaped the Senate’s $2 trillion stimulus deal and Beshear led Kentucky’s effort to slow the spread of coronavirus there, sources close to both men said. The conversations started with the state’s basic needs — tests and protective medical equipment — and eventually encompassed how the federal government could help states, municipalities and hospitals. Top staff members continue to speak daily.
“It has been really helpful to get ground truth on this while developing a bill of this magnitude,” said Phil Maxson, McConnell’s chief of staff.
The link between the nation’s most powerful Republican lawmaker and his home state’s first-year Democratic executive, who was sworn in just three and a half months ago, underscores the central role governors like Beshear have played in attempting to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Beshear’s daily briefings, alongside Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack and American Sign Language interpreter Virginia Moore, are sober and straightforward — lacking the gusto of New York’s Andrew Cuomo, but similarly accomplishing the dual tasks of providing instructions to his state’s residents and outlining its needs and challenges for the federal government.
“I will do what it takes. I will spend what it takes,” Beshear said Thursday.
In Kentucky, Beshear moved more quickly than many other governors to take dramatic steps aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. He declared a state of emergency on March 6, a day before Cuomo would do so in New York and a week before Trump declared a national emergency.
The next day, he issued recommendations on social distancing in the first of what have become daily briefings. Days later, he ordered all schools in Kentucky to close. On March 11, he asked churches to cancel worship services, drawing some criticism from pastors.
Beshear has also waived co-pays and deductibles for coronavirus tests, and has loosened the state’s rules for unemployment insurance so that those laid off amid the economic fallout of the virus quickly qualify.
This week, Beshear closed all non-essential retail businesses and issued an order halting all elective medical procedures and all evictions.
Beshear’s early actions in Kentucky became the subject of viral graphs by local educator Stephanie Jolly that chart the dates of Beshear’s actions, such as declaring a state of emergency on March 6, and those of neighboring Tennessee’s governor, Republican Bill Lee — who declared a state of emergency and closed schools about a week later than Beshear. The graphs show that coronavirus cases have spiked much more dramatically in Tennessee than in Kentucky.
“This is what effective governance looks like,” Jolly wrote in a March 19 Facebook post. “Two states of similar demographic and rural/urban centers; two vastly different responses to the pandemic. One immediately declared a state of emergency, strongly encouraged social distancing, signed executive orders, closed schools and later closed all bars/restaurants. The other — did not.”
As of Friday, Kentucky had 302 cases of coronavirus. Tennessee had 1,203.
Beshear made a direct comparison to Tennessee in his Thursday briefing.
“Just remember, if your small businesses and your counties are sacrificing, if you simply drive over the border to another state, and have all the contacts we’re trying to stop, you frustrate the sacrifice of those in your community,” he said.
Beshear was also critical of a letter from Trump in which he told governors Thursday that new coronavirus testing capabilities would allow his administration to identify “high-risk, medium risk and low-risk” counties where different levels of social distancing would be appropriate.
“A county line is something that we put on a map. It’s not real,” Beshear said. “At least while I’m governor, we’re going to make sure that the whole state is operating under the very same game plan. Because the moment we relax something from County A, someone from County B drives to County A, and all of a sudden we see a very large outbreak.”
In Kentucky, Beshear’s actions have largely been lauded. State GOP legislative leaders have praised his handling of the pandemic.
There are differences between the governor, who has said the state legislature should enact a budget and then end its session, and Republican leaders, who began the year pursuing measures that would curtail Beshear’s executive power and implement new abortion restrictions. Republican legislators amended a bill Thursday to give Republican attorney general Daniel Cameron the authority to shut down abortion providers during the pandemic.
But Beshear and Republican state officials have largely been on the same page in recent weeks.
Cameron, who last year became Kentucky’s first African-American attorney general and is viewed in GOP circles as a rising star, has worked with Beshear to combat online price gouging for supplies such as hand sanitizer and face masks amid the pandemic. Beshear in early March signed an executive order activating the state’s price gouging laws for 15 days, and has since extended that executive order, which Cameron is tasked with enforcing.
Beshear also granted Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams’ request to delay Kentucky’s May primary until June.
But the moments that have elevated Beshear into the national spotlight have come at his briefings.
At one this week, Beshear revealed that a young person is infected after taking part at a “coronavirus party” with a group of young adults.
The partygoers intentionally got together “thinking they were invincible” and purposely defying state guidance to practice social distancing, Beshear said.
“This is one that makes me mad,” the governor said. “We have to be much better than that.”
This week, Gabe Brown, the mayor of Walton, a northeastern Kentucky town, sparked his own viral moment with a Facebook tirade against community members he believed were not taking social distancing orders seriously enough.
“Listen up dips**ts and sensible people,” he wrote. “I might not have the best bedside manor. I might not put you at ease like the Governor does, but I don’t care. You need to realize that this is a serious ordeal. In fact, it’s a big f***king deal. Stay at home.”
As for Beshear, though, Brown said Thursday he thinks the governor is doing a “fantastic job.”
“Really, the biggest thing that I’ve been impressed with through everything has been communication,” Brown said.
“When this is all over, we can go back to disagreeing on things,” he said. “But right now, it’s not a time for partisan politics. It’s a time to support each other.”