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Takeaways from Kentucky’s crowded Republican gubernatorial primary

Attorney General Daniel Cameron at the Republicans' 2019 Election Party
J. Tyler Franklin
Attorney General Daniel Cameron at the Republicans' 2019 Election Party

Daniel Cameron won Kentucky’s GOP primary for governor with a commanding lead in a crowded race. Political experts say it shows he has strong support from Republicans in the state as he challenges Andy Beshear, one of the most popular Democratic governors in the nation.

Cameron will face off against incumbent Beshear in November after winning 48% of the GOP gubernatorial primary vote Tuesday, 26 percentage points more than runner-up Ryan Quarles, the state’s current agriculture commissioner. In third place, former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft won just 17% of the vote.

On the Democratic side, Beshear brought in 91% of the vote, though his challengers didn’t campaign extensively.

Several political experts called Cameron’s commanding victory “surprising,” especially after Craft spent millions on TV ads and lined up last-minute high-profile endorsements like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate.

Cameron is also the first Black person to be nominated by a major party in Kentucky for the governor’s office. If he were elected, he would be the first Black Republican governor in U.S. history.

“The size of his victory … really stands him in good stead going into the fall. He has Republicans behind him,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Cross, a former political journalist with the Louisville Courier Journal, said he didn’t expect Craft’s poor showing. Initially considered a front-runner alongside Cameron, Craft’s campaign spent about $9.6 million on the race — that shakes out to $184.50 spent for every vote she received. Cross said the results show that outspending your opponents does not guarantee a victory.

“She has spent so much money, and has actually gained something of a following. But I think in the end, most voters just could not see her as a governor,” Cross said. “She just had too many slip ups and didn't seem to quite make the grade.”

Daniel Cameron

$7.70 per vote

144,490 votes (48%)

$1,111,981.72 spent

Ryan Quarles

$11.84 per vote

65,676 votes (22%)

$777,784.16 spent

Kelly Craft

$184.50 per vote

52,136 votes (17%)

$9,619,149.69 spent

Eric Deters

$43.84 per vote

17,460 votes (6%)

$765,504.61 spent

Mike Harmon

$9.11 per vote

7,794 votes (3%)

$70,986.97 spent

Alan Keck

$39.82 per vote

7,315 votes (2%)

$291,279.45 spent

Dewey Clayton, a professor of government at the University of Louisville, said he too was surprised by Craft’s lacking performance at the polls. While money is inevitably important in politics, Clayton said it can’t always beat out a strong competitor like Cameron.

Clayton said he doesn’t see funding being a main concern in the upcoming general election between Cameron and Beshear because “both of them will be well funded.”

“And I would suspect even much earlier than the primaries, we'll start seeing ads going up by both of the candidates [or] by other groups that are interested in putting them into office,” Clayton said.

Clayton said he expects Cameron will try to tie Beshear with more progressive Democrats nationally.

“Cameron has tried to nationalize this race to a certain extent,” Clayton said. “I think that Beshear will probably try to do just the opposite and, and make this race about Kentucky and local issues.”

The advertising for Cameron’s primary campaign could foreshadow his strategy for the general election, said Anne Cizmar, a professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University. She predicted that Cameron will highlight his legal challenges to Beshear during his tenure as attorney general, and will paint a different picture for what Kentucky’s future should look like.

Cizmar noted that Beshear will have a tough race as a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state.Republicans now have the largest percentage of registrations in Kentucky at 45.8%, which Cizmar noted often lags behind the real divisions.

“People will start to vote based more on their party identification as you get closer to election day. So that works against Beshear, even though his approval rating is very high,” Cizmar said.

Beshear won his first term in office in 2019after narrowly defeating incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin’s loss has largely been attributed to his acrimonious style and because he leaned into political battles with teachers and other state workers. According to Cross, Bevin was a less formidable opponent than Cameron, who has deep roots in the Republican Party as a former protege of U.S. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

Cross said he believes the race, which stretches until the general election on Nov. 7, will receive widespread national attention and funding.

“This will be the number one race in the country this year,” he said.

Justin Hicks contributed to this report.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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