Hadley Duvall answers questions from a reporter during an interview...

Hadley Duvall answers questions from a reporter during an interview in Versailles, Ky., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Duvall is featured in a campaign ad attacking Republican Daniel Cameron's long-held position on the abortion issue. Credit: AP/Timothy D. Easley

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky's debate over abortion access intensified Wednesday as the Democratic governor pounded away at his rival's longstanding support for the state's existing abortion ban shortly after Republican challenger Daniel Cameron had signaled new willingness to accept exceptions for rape and incest.

Gov. Andy Beshear's campaign tried to keep Cameron on the defensive with a pointed TV ad featuring a young woman from Owensboro who reveals her childhood trauma while slamming the GOP nominee.

“Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” Hadley Duvall says in the ad coming out Wednesday on statewide TV.

It's the latest salvo in a campaign that has gotten more contentious over hot-button social issues.

Cameron and his allies have blasted Beshear for vetoing transgender bills — one that banned gender-affirming care for young transgender people and another that barred transgender girls and women from participating in school sports matching their gender identity. Both vetoes were overridden by the GOP-dominated legislature.

Cameron pushed back aggressively Wednesday against the Beshear campaign, while criticizing the governor for opposing a number of anti-abortion measures.

“He lectures us on partisanship and unity, then runs disgusting, false attacks. I have said if the legislature were to bring me a bill with exceptions, I would sign it,” Cameron said in a statement.

Hadley Duvall answers questions from a reporter during an interview...

Hadley Duvall answers questions from a reporter during an interview in Versailles, Ky., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Duvall is featured in a campaign ad attacking Republican Daniel Cameron's long-held position on the abortion issue. Credit: AP/Timothy D. Easley

Duvall, now in her early 20s, looks directly into the camera and talks about having been raped by her stepfather when she was 12 years old. Duvall became pregnant as a seventh grader but eventually miscarried. The stepfather was convicted of rape and is in prison.

The Associated Press does not normally identify sexual assault victims, but Duvall chose to be identified and has spoken out publicly about what she experienced and its connection to the debate over abortion.

Beshear has gone on offense on an issue that anti-abortion Republicans long claimed as theirs in this largely conservative state. Cameron is challenging Beshear in one of the nation's most closely watched campaigns in 2023. Beshear's campaign turned up the pressure after Cameron appeared to back off from his entrenched position of supporting the state's abortion ban as currently written, with few exceptions.

During a Monday radio interview, Cameron revealed that he would support amending the abortion law to add exceptions allowing for the termination of pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

Hadley Duvall answers questions from a reporter during an interview...

Hadley Duvall answers questions from a reporter during an interview in Versailles, Ky., Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Duvall is featured in a campaign ad attacking Republican Daniel Cameron's long-held position on the abortion issue. Credit: AP/Timothy D. Easley

In a campaign statement later that day, however, Cameron appeared to try to mollify both abortion hardliners and people who support adding the rape and incest exceptions.

“Daniel Cameron is the pro-life candidate for governor and supports the Human Life Protection Act'' — the current abortion ban, the statement said. ”But if the situation in Kentucky were to change and the legislature brought him a bill to add exceptions for rape and incest, he would, of course, sign it."

His shift could be another indication that more Republicans see the abortion issue as a political liability since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a nationwide right to abortion last year. Since then, voters have protected abortion rights via ballot measures in several states, including Kentucky.

Duvall said she doesn't think Cameron's shift is genuine.

“I want to ask him where he's been all along on the matter,” Duvall said in an interview Wednesday. “Seven weeks before an election is a little too late to change your views on something so intense.”

Cameron's comments drew an avalanche of coverage in the Bluegrass State. A headline in the Louisville newspaper referred to Cameron's “flip-flops” on rape and incest exceptions. An opinion piece in the Lexington paper pointed to Cameron's “confusing views.”

Democrats derided Cameron's apparent shift as politically motivated, pointing to polling they say shows the race tilting in Beshear's favor. They recounted Cameron's defense of the abortion ban in court as the state's attorney general and his public pronouncements of support for the existing ban.

Beshear's campaign doubled down Wednesday with the new commercial, which features Duvall addressing the Republican nominee directly.

“This is to you, Daniel Cameron," she says. "To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable. I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options.”

Since last year, Cameron had steadfastly defended the current Kentucky law that bans all abortions except when carried out to save a pregnant woman’s life or to prevent a disabling injury. During a Republican primary debate in March, Cameron expressed support for the law as currently written.

Cameron also touted his anti-abortion credentials more openly during the spring primary campaign. But since winning the gubernatorial nomination, Cameron and his allies generally have downplayed the abortion issue while focusing on other topics, including crime rates and transgender rights.

Beshear, an abortion rights supporter, has consistently called the state’s abortion ban an “extremist” law that he says the “vast majority” of Kentuckians disagree with, pointing to the lack of exceptions for rape and incest. Cameron's campaign says Beshear accommodated abortion-rights groups by opposing a series of abortion measures, including one to ban abortions in Kentucky after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Beshear noted at the time that the 15-week ban lacked exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

The new ad continues Beshear's reelection strategy of tying Cameron to the abortion ban. A previous Beshear ad featured a prosecutor denouncing the law’s lack of exceptions for rape or incest.

Now Duvall is telling her own story.

“Maybe I can help other people find their voice,” Duvall said. “Because I know when I was trying to find mine, I was trying to find other people like me that I could lean on, that I could ask about. It's not an easy thing to talk about.”

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