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Democratic governor spars with Republican challenger over pandemic policies in Kentucky debate

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear defended his sweeping COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as he faced an onslaught of criticism from Republican challenger Daniel Cameron in a high-stakes debate Monday night, coming about two weeks before Kentucky’s closely watched gubernatorial election.

In an hourlong debate from Lexington shown on Kentucky Educational Television, the bitter rivals sparred over the economy, education policies, abortion and transgender issues. They were pressed to drill down on many of their policy positions during the latest in a series of faceoffs before the Nov. 7 election.

Some of their sharpest exchanges came when Beshear was asked to critique his policies during the height of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, while Cameron was pressed on what he would have done differently. The virus has killed more than 19,000 Kentuckians since early 2020.

The pandemic dominated the first half of the governor’s term, and his restrictions on businesses and gatherings have come under constant attack from Cameron, the state’s attorney general.

Beshear said he believed he made the best decisions he could have with the information he had at the time. Talking about the global health crisis in personal terms, the governor noted that he mentioned every pandemic death in Kentucky during his many press conferences to update people about the virus.

“I showed people during the pandemic I was willing to make the hard decisions, even if it cost me,” Beshear said. “I put politics out the window, and I made the best decisions I could to save as many lives as possible.”

Cameron countered that the governor infringed on constitutional rights with his restrictions.

“This governor, because of pride, won’t tell you that he has regrets,” Cameron said.

As the state’s attorney general, Cameron successfully led court fights against the governor’s pandemic actions, which essentially halted the COVID-era restrictions. Cameron said the governor’s policies amounted to executive overreach. Beshear said his actions saved lives and that he leaned heavily on guidance from former Republican President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force.

Cameron said Monday night that the restrictions hurt small businesses, many of which haven’t yet recovered. School closures led to widespread learning loss among students, he said.

Beshear responded that he made vaccinations a priority for teachers to get schools reopened. Sending teachers back to classrooms before having access to the vaccine would have put them at risk, he said.

“It was real,” Beshear said of the pandemic. “And acting like we shouldn’t have taken those steps is a slap in the face at all those health care workers that marched into the COVID wings when they didn’t have enough PPE, knowing they could take it home to their families.”

Bruce Schreiner And Dylan Lovan, The Associated Press