Republicans in Kentucky will decide their nominee for governor on Tuesday in the party’s first major primary since last year’s midterm elections – and one with implications for the 2024 GOP presidential race and the battle for Senate control.
The race will test former President Donald Trump’s influence with GOP voters as he seeks a return to the White House. It will also weigh conservatives’ appetite for cultural fights over transgender rights, tough-on-crime messaging and more.
Three states are hosting governor’s races this year, with Kentucky’s likely to be the most competitive. Mississippi and Louisiana also hold gubernatorial contests this fall.
The Republican race to take on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has been bitter. State Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a former staffer for Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, entered the race as the 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 into television ads in the race.
Other GOP candidates include Ryan Quarles, the state agriculture commissioner who has focused 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 is defending 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 had angered many in his own party – in 2019. He is considered a shoo-in to fend off 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 had a prime speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention and has been viewed by many in the GOP as a rising star – in June 2022, even though Craft, who had worked in his administration, was still considering entering 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 that I am the right candidate to lead Kentucky and the only candidate he has 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 the primary and general elections this year, he would 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 the Reconstruction era, but neither were elected.)
Craft has downplayed Trump’s endorsement of Cameron, noting that it came when she was not officially in the race.
Cameron, in a debate earlier this month, shot back by pointing out that Trump attended the Kentucky Derby alongside Craft last year – and, weeks later, endorsed Cameron.
“Kelly, you spent six months telling folks that you were going to get the Donald Trump endorsement. You had him at the Derby last year. And then I got the endorsement. And your team has been scrambling ever since,” Cameron said at the debate hosted by Kentucky Educational Television.
Craft has sought to latch Cameron to McConnell, portraying her opponent as a political insider who, she says in one ad, would “rather follow than lead.” She has also campaigned on a tough-on-crime message and lambasted Cameron for allowing the Justice Department to investigate Louisville’s police department after officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, prompting national backlash, in 2020. In a TV ad, Craft’s campaign described the Justice Department as “woke” and its probe as a “big government takeover.”
“Letting big government push their diversity agenda while crime skyrocketed, they failed Kentucky’s law enforcement,” the ad’s narrator says.
Craft has also leaned into attacks on transgender rights while slamming what she calls “woke ideology” in schools.
“We will not have transgenders in our school system,” she said Monday during a telephone town hall – a remark that prompted criticism from pro-LGBTQ rights advocates in Kentucky.
For his part, Quarles has sought to win over voters who may 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 the early May debate. “There’s no problem with having disagreements on issues and policies and voting records, etc. But it’s important that if we’re going to defeat Andy Beshear, we need to nominate somebody who wants to help lift other people up and unite the party after May 16.”
Despite the attack ads and debate-stage barbs, GOP observers say differences on policy matters between the candidates are minimal.
“It’s more of a personality-driven campaign,” said Tyler Glick, a Republican public affairs consultant based in Louisville. “I don’t think it’s been so much fought out over the issues as just positioning their story and their approach.”
While the governor’s race is Kentucky’s marquee contest of 2023, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams – who has won bipartisan praise for his work with Beshear and the GOP-led legislature to expand mail-in and early voting faces two primary opponents in his bid for a second term.
One opponent, information technology project manager Steve Knipper, who has lost two previous bids for the state’s chief elections role, has claimed without evidence that there was fraud in the 2019 governor’s race won by Beshear. Another contender is Allen Maricle, a former state lawmaker.
Adams said in an interview on KET this month that his rivals were pushing “crazy myths” about election fraud.
“The bottom line is our elections are more secure now than they’ve ever been,” he said.
Like the gubernatorial contest, the winner of the GOP primary for secretary of state only needs a plurality of the vote to land the nomination. Former state Rep. Buddy Wheatley is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
This story has been updated with additional information.