Gina Thorn’s life was uprooted when a monstrous tornado tore through her Kentucky hometown of Mayfield, but her family stuck it out and now they’re homeowners for the first time.
Thorn says Gov. Andy Beshear deserves credit for their brighter outlook, and the hardware store cashier intends to show her appreciation by voting for the Democratic incumbent in November.
Thorn’s story had a happy outcome when Beshear, who is seeking a second term in a state that’s trending Republican, recently headlined a ceremony where house keys were presented to the Thorns and four other Mayfield families. But that hasn’t happened yet for everybody, and some storm survivors grumble about the slow pace of recovery.
In a governor’s race that could turn on whether Republican Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general, is able to run the table in rural Kentucky by large enough margins to overcome a Democratic advantage in the state’s two biggest cities, the time Beshear has spent as governor helping disaster-stricken places like Mayfield rebuild could be a key to his reelection bid.
Beshear has been called on to respond to massive flooding in eastern Kentucky as well as the tornadoes that swept through out west, and he has come to be seen as a kind of consoler-in-chief by some Kentuckians.
“He’s done an amazing job,” Thorn said before the ceremony. “He’s actually stepped up and really showed everybody that he is a good governor and he can change lives.”
A tornado relief fund set up by Beshear provided $500,000 to help build the five homes. It was the governor’s 18th visit to Graves County, which includes Mayfield, since the tragedy struck on Dec. 10, 2021. Federal and state aid for tornado-damaged areas has totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the governor’s handling of the disaster has drawn criticism from others. At a Republican rally in Mayfield, Tammy Elliott said the recovery has been painstakingly slow. Elliott, who works in Mayfield but lives in a neighboring county, said a friend still displaced by the storm is living with her.
Asked to rate the governor’s performance, she said he’s “good at getting on TV and making all these promises,” but summed up his record as more talk than results. Elliott supports Cameron in one of the nation’s most closely watched elections this year.
Cameron is largely staking his candidacy on rural voters, some of whom have benefited directly from storm recovery efforts led by the governor — or have relatives or friends who benefited.
Rural Kentucky in recent years has become a GOP stronghold, including areas hit by tornadoes or floods, securing the party’s dominance in a state once controlled by Democrats. U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell recently said the transformation took hold during Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency.
“Most of rural America figured out that the Democrats were a bunch of East Coast elitists and they have quit voting for them all across rural and small-town America.” McConnell said.
Four years ago, then-Republican Gov. Matt Bevin outpolled Beshear by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Graves County. Statewide, Beshear narrowly defeated the incumbent.
This year, Beshear is expected to run strongest again in the cities and suburbs, while hoping to shrink rural margins favoring the GOP.
During his visit to Mayfield, the governor cited Scripture, mourned the loss of life from the tornadoes and offered an upbeat message for the future, pointing to job creation in the agricultural county. It’s part of a broader message playing up the state’s record pace of economic development during his term.
“When you have been through the worst, you deserve the best,” Beshear said. “And our goal shouldn’t be rebuilding. It should be revitalization and more opportunity for this region than ever before.”
Mayfield — situated 226 miles southwest of Louisville — took a direct hit in the storm. But the neighborhood where the Thorns will live is springing back to life — a sign of renewal in a town where the devastation remains evident, including the vacant courthouse square that once bustled with activity. A memorial to storm victims sits on the empty grounds. A bank is being built across the street.
Cameron said things aren’t moving fast enough.
“Look at Mayfield, and there are still buildings that aren’t back up,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
More than 100 new homes have been completed or are being built in town, but more residential construction is needed, said Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan. Local leaders are making plans with architects to rebuild government buildings, she said. Once those groundbreakings approach, she predicted that private developers will move ahead with construction plans downtown.
The mayor said she understands the impatience.
“With the county and the city, we have to make sure that the funding is there before we move forward with anything,” she said. “Because the last thing either one of our local governments want to do is to start these big projects and not have the money to complete them and then have that burden on the taxpayer.”
Thorn said her family considered moving away after the tornado destroyed the apartment building where she lived with her husband and their young daughter. They have lived with relatives since, but hope to start over in their new home near downtown.
“We’re looking forward to decorating the way we want to,” she said.
Thorn predicted that Beshear will get considerable support from Mayfield voters for his response to the disaster. So does her neighbor Melinda Lofton, who moved back to Mayfield after renting a house in nearby Paducah when the storm forced her out of her apartment.
“The fact that he shows up is most important,” Lofton said. “You can tell that he really cares about us.”
Beshear teamed with the GOP-led legislature to direct state aid packages to the tornado- and flood-stricken regions. State Sen. Robby Mills, who helped craft the tornado relief legislation, is Cameron’s running mate. Meanwhile, the governor routinely gives updates on the recovery efforts and has made numerous trips to both regions.
“It’s absolutely one of the reasons that I’m running again,” Beshear said after the Mayfield housing event. “I made this promise. We’ve got to get the job done.”