Kentucky Republicans pick nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Beshear

Kentucky Republicans are picking a nominee to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in Tuesday's primary elections

Bruce Schreiner
Tuesday 16 May 2023 05:06 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Kentucky’s crowded Republican primary campaign for governor comes to a close Tuesday, wrapping up a bitter competition between two rivals with ties to former President Donald Trump who dominated the race. Only one of 12 contenders will remain standing to challenge the red-leaning state’s popular Democratic governor.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft are considered the frontrunners for the GOP nomination. Although Craft was nominated to her post by Trump, it was Cameron who won the former president's coveted endorsement early in the campaign.

Whoever gets the most votes in Tuesday's primary will be the GOP nominee because there is no runoff rule.

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is seeking reelection to a second term, awaits the winner of the GOP primary for what’s sure to be a tumultuous general election bid. The November race, one of just a few top contests nationally during an off-year election, will be closely watched for signs of the mood of conservative voters.

The election will also test the strength of a well-liked Democratic governor in a state dominated by Republicans, a year before national elections determine control of the White House and Congress. Beshear has received consistently high voter approval ratings throughout a crisis-filled term and faces nominal opposition in his party’s primary Tuesday.

The crowded GOP primary features other statewide officials — Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Auditor Mike Harmon — as well as Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and retired attorney Eric Deters. But with few policy differences among them, the GOP contest has centered around the competition between Cameron and Craft.

Craft, who also served as ambassador to Canada during Trump's presidency, has a clear fundraising advantage, countering her lack of experience in elected office by saturating the air with months of TV ads bankrolled by her family’s formidable fortune.

Cameron, meanwhile, has touted his record of going to court to challenge the pandemic-era policies of the incumbent governor. He is the state’s first Black attorney general and would become the state’s first Black governor if elected.

Trump held a virtual rally Sunday night in support of Cameron, while Craft campaigned alongside Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Saturday as the rivals hoped for a late burst of momentum.

The primary battle has been heated. A pro-Craft group has portrayed Cameron as an “establishment teddy bear” in claiming he wasn’t tough enough as attorney general, while a pro-Cameron group swung back by attacking Craft’s record as an ambassador.

Despite Beshear's incumbency advantages, Republicans see a prime opportunity to win back the governorship in a state they have come to dominate in recent years. Republicans maintain supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature and occupy every statewide office except governor and lieutenant governor. They now hold a statewide registration advantage over Democrats, and the GOP holds all but one congressional seat from Kentucky.

Democrats have reveled in the Republican infighting as they prepare for a challenger to Beshear, who won the governorship in 2019 by ousting then-Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. GOP observers believe Beshear will face a more formidable challenge against a candidate without the political baggage Bevin brought into the race with his pugilistic style of governing.

Beshear's term has been marked by a series of tragedies — the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and a mass shooting that killed one of his closest friends. He has been out front through all of it, comfortably taking on a role as the state’s consoler in chief and winning over supporters among people who didn't back him the first time. Beshear also has presided over record economic growth and will draw upon his family’s strong political brand — his father, Steve Beshear, is a former two-term Kentucky governor.

The gubernatorial campaign tops primary races for other constitutional offices in Kentucky, with competitive contests on the GOP side. Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, who pushed successfully for expanded voter access, faces two challengers in his bid for his party's nod for a second term. Two-term state Treasurer Allison Ball is seeking the Republican nomination for state auditor. The GOP also has contested primaries for state treasurer and agriculture commissioner.

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