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The GOP knife fight in the race for Kentucky’s governorship

The wild primary in the most important election of 2023 pits a future GOP star against a megadonor.

Daniel Cameron, a tall Black man with close-cropped hair and wearing a navy blue suit and tie, speaks into a cluster of microphones on the white marble steps in front of the Supreme Court building.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaks to the press at the Supreme Court on October 12, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Editor’s note, May 17: Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s attorney general, has won the Republican primary in the Kentucky governor’s race. He’ll face off against Democratic Governor Andy Beshear in the November general election. The original story, first published on May 7 and updated on May 16, follows.

The biggest race of 2023 is in Kentucky, and it’s not the Derby. Instead, the reelection bid by the state’s Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear will be the focus of national attention in November. It’s not just about the high stakes for the Bluegrass State, where Republicans have supermajorities in the state legislature and Beshear is the lone remaining Democrat in a statewide office. The race also serves as a bellwether for 2024, when control of the Senate will hinge on popular Democratic incumbents facing tough reelection battles in states like Ohio and Montana, which are less red than Kentucky.

But, before Republicans can try to defeat Beshear, they first have to pick a nominee in what has become a bruising and expensive primary. Tuesday’s primary election is not an ideological battle between different wings of the GOP nor has there been any sort of reckoning or debate over former President Donald Trump’s influence in the party. Instead, it has been a battle over which candidate can more convincingly claim to be a conservative fighter against Joe Biden and “the radical left.”

The race has boiled down to a fiercely contested battle between Daniel Cameron, the state attorney general, and Kelly Craft, a Republican megadonor who served in the Trump administration, first as ambassador to Canada and then to the United Nations. The state’s agricultural commissioner, Ryan Quarles, is also in the mix as well but running a consistent third in public polls behind Cameron and Craft.

Both Cameron and Craft would represent historical milestones in the state. Craft would be the second female governor in Kentucky history and the first Republican woman elected to the office. Cameron represents an even bigger milestone. He not only would be the first African American governor in the history of Kentucky, he would be the first African American elected as a Republican governor of any state.

Politically, they have run similar campaigns on the issues. Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican strategist in Kentucky, told Vox that all three of the major candidates have expressed the same basic conservative views on issues like guns and abortion and described them all as “mainstream conservative Republicans.”

Instead, the race has focused on personalities and become personal as the Kentucky airwaves have been flooded with television ads.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Cameron has in the race is the endorsement of Donald Trump. The former president issued an endorsement of Cameron in 2022 which the state attorney general has heavily touted in recent weeks. In contrast, Craft’s biggest advantage is her personal wealth. Her husband Joe Craft is a billionaire coal mogul. She has loaned her campaign almost $10 million this year and her husband has spent $1.5 million to fund the superPAC that supports her.

The result is that Craft has dominated the airwaves for much of the campaign — not just with positive ads that depict her taking culture war positions like standing up to “woke bureaucrats” but with negative ads that have bashed Cameron for being an “establishment” Republican as well as for his ties to the state’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell. A superPAC backing her aired an ad in March bashing Cameron as a “soft establishment teddy bear.” That framing has continued more recently. In one recent ad that tried to tie Cameron to New York County district attorney Alvin Bragg, the state attorney general morphs into an actual teddy bear on screen. More recently, Craft has explicitly attacked Cameron’s ties to McConnell in a television ad painting her opponent as “an insider.”

Polling in the race has been sparse. An April poll from Emerson College had Cameron in the lead at 30 percent, Craft trailing him with 24 percent, and Quarles at 15 percent with 21 percent of voters still undecided. However, since then Cameron’s campaign has been more active on television and all the candidates debated together for the first time in the campaign. Craft used the debate to attack Cameron over donations to his campaign from a company that makes gambling machines. Cameron attacked Craft because of her husband’s massive donations to her superPAC and suggested that may have been illegal coordination as a result.

Cameron also used the debate to repeatedly tout his Trump endorsement and attack Craft for not receiving the former president’s backing. He jibed at her on stage, saying “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.”

Craft’s scrambling included a last-minute endorsement only hours before polls opened Tuesday from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who shares a political consulting team with the Kentucky Republican. However, DeSantis’s endorsement also came at a time when a late poll showed Cameron widening his lead over Craft, giving the undeclared presidential candidate the potential of some embarrassment in what Trump allies are sure to turn into a proxy battle between the two men.

Regardless of whatever implications for 2024 pundits read into the result, there’s a real question about how much the attacks from the primary linger on into the general election. Beshear is one of the most popular governors in the US — a recent Morning Consult poll giving him a 63 percent approval rating — and he comes from a Kentucky political dynasty in the state (his father Steve was a two-term governor from 2007 to 2015). But there is a long time between May and November, and Kentucky is a state that Donald Trump won by 25 percentage points in 2020.

Update, May 16, 11:35 am: This story was originally published on May 7 and has been updated with DeSantis’s endorsement and polling.