WASHINGTON -- Fresh off a six-month period in which his state defied expectations to become one of Obamacare's defining success stories, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) sees room for additional growth.
Beshear told The Huffington Post that he has had conversations with several insurance companies interested in entering Kentucky's health care exchange when open enrollment begins again this November. And though many of the 420,000 state residents who obtained insurance this past cycle were the so-called low-hanging fruit -- people either desperate for coverage or eligible for Medicaid -- Beshear's expectation is that word-of-mouth testimonials will persuade those who didn't sign up already that it's a good buy.
"Our success, I think, is going to build on itself," the governor said in an interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "The fact is that everybody in Kentucky is at least aware that we had a successful rollout of some kind of new health care, and so, as you contact these people, I think we are in an improved position in terms of convincing them that they need to do something."
To reach the universe of unconvinced, Beshear and his staff are scheming ways to make enrollment easier. Officials at Kynect, Kentucky's insurance exchange, are planning improvements to the state's small business portal. They are also ramping up multilingual outreach and implementing website fixes to enhance user experience, he said.
Perhaps because of his own experience, Beshear has some anomalistic political advice for his fellow Democrats. Forcefully associate yourself with Obamacare, he insists, if nothing else because distancing yourself will come off as politically calculating or insincere.
"Go on out there and be proud of this," he said. "Health care for all Americans is our issue and we are finally able to provide that. So while it may be unpopular because of the president's [unpopularity], in the long run it is going to be one of the best things that's happened to America in a long time. And so, we need to take it and run with it."
Asked whether he has said the same to Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state now running to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Beshear wasn't quite so gung-ho, though he still saw the law as an asset.
"Certainly Alison is going to handle issues as she sees fit. She is running against a fella who is a very tough opponent," Beshear said. "But I think she has said that she wants to see it fixed in various ways. She doesn't want 421,000 Kentuckians to lose their health insurance. I think she is going to handle the issue OK."
It's easy perhaps to offer such advice when your experience with Obamacare has been defined not by website glitches but by enrollment successes. And Beshear certainly enjoys that privilege. During the open enrollment period, he obtained cult hero status of sorts among Obamacare advocates. His New York Times op-ed urging critics to get out of the way so he could provide insurance to his state was inspirational for this crowd. That an estimated 75 percent of those Kentuckians who signed up for health care coverage did not have insurance vindicated his embrace of the law.
Beshear's standing has been elevated so much by health care reform that he's become a trendy dark-horse candidate for higher office (think vice presidential material for Hillary Clinton). But like most Democratic pols who represent Appalachia, there are other areas of Beshear's record that complicate his standing with his own party.
His position on greenhouse gas regulations, for one, is difficult to discern. Beshear has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to rethink its proposal to clamp down on carbon dioxide output from existing coal plants. While the reasons for his opposition would seem self-evident, it is couched in language that suggests a desire for a regulatory middle ground.
"Our main concern is have they given us enough flexibility so that we can somehow meet these standards and, at the same time, preserve our manufacturing base and our jobs," Beshear said. "It is a balancing act. I think most of us share the president's goals of cleaner air and cutting down on CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions. It is a matter of balance and what kind of timelines you can have to reach those goals."
More divisive for Democrats may be Beshear's reluctance to support same-sex marriage. When the state's Democratic attorney general refused to appeal a court ruling forcing the state to recognize nuptials between gay couples performed outside Kentucky, the governor chose to fund outside counsel for the task.
"What I want to make sure of is that the people of Kentucky get a final decision out of our courts that will tell us what the rules are nationwide," Beshear said. "My sole purpose as governor and my responsibility is to make sure that all of the folks get the answer they are entitled to on that issue. The only way you are going to resolve this issue is for the United States Supreme Court to [rule on it]. ... I want Kentucky to be ruled upon."
Asked for his personal position on the matter, Beshear declined to reveal whether he thought same-sex marriage should be legal.
"I have purposely avoided letting my personal feelings get involved in this," he said.
Beshear is term-limited as governor of Kentucky, and he will be out of office in January 2016. By then, he said, he expects his legacy will be secure -- not just as the governor who brought health care to the state, but as a politician who showed that Democratic ideals can thrive in a conservative-leaning state. He doesn't expect Kentucky to suddenly become blue. But he does see the landscape changing enough for not just one (Grimes) but potentially two female Democratic candidates to win statewide.
"I think [Hillary Clinton] would have a great shot at carrying Kentucky [in 2016]," said Beshear. "No guarantees but her husband, President Clinton, carried Kentucky both times that he ran. I think she would be a great candidate and a great president, and we would have a good opportunity to get Kentucky back into the Democratic column."