In Kentucky GOP governor race, one rival aims at the center

Republicans held their first televised debate in the Kentucky governor’s race

Bruce Schreiner
Thursday 09 March 2023 16:23 GMT

On stage for the first time as a statewide candidate in the Kentucky governor's race, a small-town mayor stood out for his stands on abortion and other issues that could draw in centrist voters, even as leading rivals veered to the right.

Republican Alan Keck cracked a joke when asked to define “woke,” and said he tries to avoid the term that's become a culture-war rallying cry for social conservatives.

It was one of several instances when Keck parted ways with a trio of his rivals during the first televised debate in the campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Kentucky.

Keck, 38, the mayor of Somerset in southern Kentucky, shared the stage Tuesday with Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Auditor Mike Harmon. Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft declined to participate. Seven other competitors in the May 16 GOP primary didn't qualify, based on their fundraising and other criteria, the local county party said.

The race is drawing national attention as Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear seeks reelection in the Republican-trending state.

Trailing his main GOP rivals in fundraising and name recognition, the debate gave Keck an opportunity to introduce himself to a broader audience. He alone voiced support for adding exceptions to Kentucky's near-total abortion ban to allow for terminating pregnancies in cases of rape or incest.

And while answering questions about ways to reduce drug abuse and gun violence, Keck took the conversation in a different direction, pointing to a “lack of hope and opportunity” as their root causes.

Talking bluntly, he even confronted his lack of widespread name recognition. He didn't enter the gubernatorial campaign until late last year, well after his better-known competitors.

“I know many of you might be asking, ‘who in the heck is this Alan Keck guy?’” said Keck, who leads a town of about 12,000. “And I’m confident that in time I will emerge as a candidate who’s authentic, who’s excited and who’s transparent."

By the end of the hourlong debate, Keck was garnering more attention.

“The most interesting thing that happened in the debate was Keck plotting out a moderate lane for himself,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator.

“If he makes a play for the center/center-right suburban voters, that’s an interesting strategy,” added Jennings, who served as an adviser to former President George W. Bush. “Everyone else is running to the orthodox right.”

Viewed as an underdog, Keck didn't hold back during the debate shown on Spectrum News 1.

When it was his turn to talk about stemming gun violence, Keck touted his public safety plans and said he would resist any efforts to infringe on gun rights as "an absolute non-starter.” But then he delved deeper, saying: “Why are people committing crimes? Why are they using guns to commit these violent crimes? So often, it’s a result of that lack of hope and opportunity."

Keck said he would promote “pro-family policies,” such as extending maternity or parental leave to help families “get off on a better start" and better ensure "they never go down this path.”

When asked to define “woke,” Cameron, Quarles and Harmon offered their interpretations of what the term means. Keck quipped that he uses it when someone has "just woke up.”

Turning serious, he said: “I don’t see it bringing people together. I was taught at a young age, let’s stop calling people names. ... And so I don’t use the word a lot.”

It was the discussion about abortion policy that highlighted the starkest contrast of the night.

Cameron, Quarles and Harmon took turns saying they support the current state law — which bans abortions except when carried out to save the life of the mother or to prevent disabling injury. It doesn’t include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

Keck acknowledged he struggled with the issue, concluding he has to "trust my heart.”

“While I’m absolutely pro-life, I do believe there should be some exceptions,” Keck said. “And that’s not because I minimize the life of that child. It’s because I think there has to be some consideration for the woman in the event of violent trauma to them, especially in adolescence.”

His campaign later said Keck supports adding exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

Near the end of the debate, during a series of rapid-fire questions and answers, Keck spoke up when nearly passed over on the topic of whether to legalize sports betting in Kentucky.

In supporting a “properly regulated” sports wagering system, he replied “it’s hypocritical at best, egregious at worst" to celebrate the Kentucky Derby — with all the wagering on the race — and not be allowed to place a bet on a game between the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville.

It reflected his determination not to be overlooked.


Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan contributed to this report.

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