Kentucky Republicans will decide their nominee for governor on Tuesday in the party’s first primary since last year’s midterm elections — and one that has implications for the 2024 GOP presidential race and the fight for Senate control.
The race will test former President Donald Trump’s influence with GOP voters as he seeks to return to the White House. It will also weigh on conservatives’ appetite for cultural battles over transgender rights, the tough-on-crime message and more.
Three states are hosting gubernatorial races this year, with Kentucky likely to be the most competitive. Mississippi and Louisiana are also holding gubernatorial contests this fall.
The Republican race to face Democratic Governor Andy Beshear is bittersweet. State Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a former staffer for Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, entered the race as a heavy favorite. But Kelly Craft, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Canada and then to the United Nations and is the wife of billionaire coal magnate Joe Craft, has pumped millions of dollars in television ads into the race.
Other GOP candidates include Ryan Quarles, the state agriculture commissioner who is focusing his campaign on rural areas of the state, state auditor Mike Harmon, conservative activist Eric Deters and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck.
Meanwhile, Beshear’s bid for a second term could be an important bellwether for 2024, when his party defends Senate seats in several other red states – West Virginia, Montana and Ohio.
Beshear, whose father was a two-term governor, defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin — an unpopular incumbent who angered many in his own party — in 2019. He was considered a shoo-in to thwart the two challengers in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
At the center of the conflict between the two front-runners, Cameron and Craft, is Trump.
The former president endorsed Cameron — who has a key speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention and is viewed by many in the GOP as a rising star — in June 2022, though Craft , who works in his administration, still thinks. enter the race.
Trump is expected to join Cameron for a get-out-the-vote tele-rally on Sunday, the Cameron campaign announced.
“President Trump knows I’m the right candidate to lead Kentucky and the only candidate he’s endorsed in this race,” Cameron said in a news release Saturday.
Cameron was elected Kentucky attorney general in 2019 — the first Republican to do so in more than 70 years. If he wins this year’s primary and general elections, he will become the first Black Republican elected governor anywhere in the United States. (Two Black Republicans served as acting governor of Louisiana in the 1870s, during Reconstruction, but they were not elected.)
Craft downplayed Trump’s endorsement of Cameron, as it came when he was not officially in the race.
Cameron, in a debate earlier this month, hit back by pointing out that Trump attended the Kentucky Derby with Craft last year — and, weeks later, endorsed Cameron.
“Kelly, you spent six months telling people you were going to get Donald Trump’s endorsement. He was at the Derby last year. And then I got the endorsement. And your team has been scrambling ever since,” he said. Cameron said in a debate hosted by Kentucky Educational Television.
Craft sought to latch Cameron onto McConnell, portraying his opponent as a political insider who, he said in an ad, “would rather follow than lead.” He also campaigned on a tough-on-crime message and criticized Cameron for allowing the Justice Department to investigate the Louisville police department after officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, prompting a national backlash, in 2020. In a TV ad, Craft’s campaign described the Justice Department as “woke” and its investigation as a “big government takeover.”
“Big government is allowed to push its diversity agenda while crime rises, they fail to enforce the law in Kentucky,” says the ad’s narrator.
Craft also weighed in on attacks on transgender rights while criticizing what he called “woke ideology” in schools.
“We don’t have transgender people in our school system,” he said Monday during a telephone town hall — a comment that prompted criticism from pro-LGBTQ rights advocates in Kentucky.
For his part, Quarles is looking to win over voters who might be turned off by the ad battles between Cameron and Craft.
“It’s important that Republicans nominate a candidate who can unite the party,” he said in an early debate in May. “There’s no problem with disagreeing on issues and policies and voting records, etc. But it’s important that if we’re going to defeat Andy Beshear, we have to nominate someone who wants to help lift others up.” people and unification of the party after May 16.”
Despite the attack ads and debate episodes, GOP observers say the differences on policy matters between the candidates are small.
“This is more of a personality-driven campaign,” said Tyler Glick, a Louisville-based Republican public affairs consultant. “I don’t think it’s more of a fight over issues like setting up their story and their approach.”
While the governor’s race is Kentucky’s marquee contest in 2023, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams — who won bipartisan praise for his work with Beshear and the GOP-led legislature to expand mail- in and early voting faced two main opponents in his bid for a second term.
One opponent, information technology project manager Steve Knipper, who lost two previous bids for the role in the state’s primary election, claimed there was no evidence of fraud in the governor’s race. in 2019 won by Beshear. Another contender is Allen Maricle, a former state legislator.
Adams said in an interview with KET this month that his opponents are pushing “crazy myths” about election fraud.
“The bottom line is that our elections are safer now than ever before,” he said.
Like the gubernatorial contest, the winner of the GOP primary for secretary of state only needs a plurality of votes to secure the nomination. Former state Rep. Buddy Wheatley is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
This story has been updated with additional information.