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Where campaign cash is coming from in race for Ky. governor – and how it’s getting spent

Beshear on left with right hand raised, Cameron on right. Red white and blue background.
WCPO Cincinnati
Gov. Andy Beshear and Attorney General Daniel Cameron sparred on the debate stage at Northern Kentucky University.

Spending by candidates and political groups in Kentucky’s 2023 race for governor have already doubled the pace from the state’s 2019 general election for the office, with more than $59 million spent since the May primary.

And we don’t yet know how much candidates will raise and spend in the final two weeks of the campaign – often the most expensive part of the race.

Last Wednesday was the deadline for candidates and PACs to submit filings with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance that document their contributions and expenditures over the previous two weeks, with incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear stretching out his already considerable spending advantage over his Republican challenger, Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

While Beshear’s campaign has now spent $16.6 million since the primary – nearly five times that of Cameron’s campaign – the presence of outside PACs has kept the money battle close, with those political committees spending double what the candidates have, combined.

Here’s a look at how the record-breaking pace of campaign ad spending played out, as well as which Kentucky ZIP codes the candidates are getting their contributions from and who the major players are that are bankrolling the nearly $40 million spent by outside groups.

Beshear winning money war over Cameron, but PACs keep it close

The $16.6 million spent by Beshear’s campaign ahead of the general election was made possible in part by his lack of a competitive Democratic primary. The campaign transferred $6 million of funds raised and unspent – whereas Cameron burnt through nearly all of his funds to convincingly win a competitive GOP primary.

Beshear’s campaign hit the ground running going into the summer, using the leftover funds to start airing TV ads immediately after the primary, then raising more than $8 million more from contributors over the next five months, along with a $3 million transfer from the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Cameron’s campaign only had $15,534 leftover from primary and did not air its first TV ad until August, raising $3 million in contributions over the past five months, along with $750,000 transferred from the Republican Party of Kentucky.

The $3.4 million spent by Cameron’s campaign for the general election is barely one-fifth that of Beshear’s, but that’s where outside Republican PACs have stepped in with their own ads to keep Democrats from dominating the airwaves.

Whereas the candidates’ campaigns have combined to spend $20 million from the primary election through last Monday, the pro-Beshear and pro-Cameron groups have nearly doubled that total with at least $39 million.

Among those PACs, the groups supporting Cameron have outspent those supporting Beshear during the general election campaign, chipping in $22.4 million to the GOP cause, while Democratic PACs have spent $16.6 million.

The bulk of this outside spending on each side was done by Kentucky Values and Defending Bluegrass Values – two competing PACs led and mostly funded by the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association, respectively. The RGA and DGA are 527 groups – tax-exempt organizations that can accept contributions of unlimited amounts from people, companies and unions to support their parties’ gubernatorial candidates.

While helping to narrow the spending gap, Beshear’s campaign and his allied PACs have still combined to spend $33.3 million since the primary, outpacing the $25.8 spent by Cameron and the PACs supporting him.

According to ad-tracking firm Medium Buying, more than three-quarters of total spending through the general election has come through the form of TV ads – nearly $46 million – with Beshear having a similarly-sized advantage over Cameron and his allies.

Beshear’s campaign has aired $11.1 million of TV ads since the primary, dwarfing the $2.4 million purchased by Cameron, though the pro-Beshear side has a smaller $25.6 million to $20.3 million advantage over Cameron and his supportive groups when it comes to total TV ad spending.

Candidate donors mostly from in-state, with Beshear tapping urban centers

The campaign finance filings of both candidates show that Beshear and Cameron have mostly tapped Kentucky residents for contributions since first they entered the race, with the incumbent Democrat building a significant fundraising lead through dominating more urban ZIP codes in the state.

Cameron has picked up a slightly higher percentage of his individual itemized contributions from Kentucky residents than Beshear, with 84% of his $4.2 million raised coming from within the state.

Beshear – who announced his reelection bid in the fall of 2021, eight months before Cameron entered the race – has picked up $14 million of itemized contributions from individuals, with 81% of that total coming from Kentuckians.

With that large fundraising lead among individual donors, Beshear raised more than Cameron in nearly 70% of the Kentucky ZIP codes where a resident donated to either candidate, while able to significantly run up the score in several regions, including Lexington and Louisville.

The contrast was most stark in the 40502 ZIP code in Lexington, taking up much of the southeast of the city inside New Circle Road, where Beshear raked in $736,199 from individuals – 10 times that of Cameron’s campaign.

Seven of the 10 ZIP codes where Beshear had the largest margin of total contributions compared to Cameron were in or just outside of Jefferson County, stretching from near Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood all the way east through St. Matthews and Prospect, stretching into Oldham County. In those seven ZIP codes, Beshear’s fundraising margin over Cameron reached $1.8 million.

But Beshear’s large fundraising advantage among individuals wasn’t limited to Kentucky’s two largest urban centers. In the ZIP code including Frankfort, home of the state capital and many state government workers in his administration, the governor had his second largest margin over Cameron, raising $507,315 – 16 times the $31,336 raised by Cameron.

Beshear’s campaign was also able to hold its own in much of the rural parts of the state – especially in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, an area which is historically coal-producing and Democratic, but recently has voted overwhelmingly Republican as its signature industry declines.

Cameron outraised Beshear in only a handful of ZIP codes in Appalachia, while the governor outpaced his challenger by a large margin in the ones including Pikeville, Prestonsburg, Harlan and Whitesburg, with his $341,885 in contributions from individuals in these areas 12 times that of Cameron.

The Republican attorney general reached his largest fundraising margin over Beshear in the 42240 ZIP code including Hopkinsville in western Kentucky, where Cameron’s $55,562 haul from individuals was nearly three times that of Beshear. He also doubled up Beshear in two neighboring ZIP codes to the west, combining to give him a margin of more than $27,000.

One of Cameron’s strongest areas was the ZIP code including La Grange in Oldham County, where his $33,391 of contributions nearly doubled Beshear, while his largest haul of $179,322 came in Elizabethtown’s 42701 ZIP code – where he grew up.

While his hometown gave him Cameron’s largest fundraising total, it was also a telling sign that Beshear nearly matched him there, raising just $9,000 less.

Outside of the state, Cameron’s largest hauls came from Texas and Tennessee, which padded his campaign with more than $80,000 each, while Beshear got the most outside donations from Florida and Ohio, which added $300,000 and $270,000 to his effort, respectively.

Partisan groups, dark money and unions fill PAC coffers

While the DGA and RGA have bankrolled the bulk of the $39 million in PAC spending during the general election campaigns, there have also been other significant players that had a big impact on the race by opening their wallets.

On the pro-Cameron side, the RGA has entirely bankrolled $12 million of PAC spending through the Kentucky Values PAC, which is just shy of half of the $25 million of PAC spending on Cameron’s behalf. The RGA has only had to disclose its donors to the IRS once in 2023 – detailing its $31 million of receipts through the first half of the year – and will not have to do so again until next year.

Filling in to considerably aid the RGA’s efforts are three federal PACs that have been recently and historically bankrolled by billionaire Pennsylvania investor Jeff Yass, a “school choice” and free market advocate who previously financed PACs supporting Rand Paul.

Protect Freedom PAC, School Choice Fund and Club for Growth Action have combined to spend at least $6.4, mostly on ads hitting Beshear on his pandemic-era restrictions and commutations, vetoes of bills targeting transgender youth and ties to President Joe Biden.

Yass’ $3 million to Protect Freedom in June was the only contribution reported by the PAC in the first half of this year, while the $15 million given to School Freedom Fund by Yass in the past two years makes up nearly all of its recorded funds through this June.

The $15 million Yass has given to Club for Growth Action this year makes up the majority of the PACs funding in 2023, including his $10 million contribution in June.

Another large contributor to pro-Cameron PACs has been the Concord Fund, a conservative "dark money" 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not have to reveal the identity of its funders.

The Concord Fund pitched in $2.25 million in the GOP primary to Bluegrass Freedom Action, a PAC that helped Cameron to victory with ads criticizing Kelly Craft, one of his well-funded opponents. Bluegrass Freedom Action has spent another $2.5 million to aid Cameron with ads attacking Beshear ahead of the general election, with the Concord Fund pitching in another $1 million to the PAC.

Also funding Bluegrass Freedom Action over the course of the year were two more 501(c)(4) nonprofits able to shield their donors – American Policy Coalition, which gave $530,000 to the PAC earlier this month, and Safe Streets Safe Communities, which contributed $185,000 in the primary and general election.

Other notable funders of Bluegrass Freedom Action include: Kiki and Louise Courtelis, owners of a thoroughbred farm in Georgetown ($375,000); eastern Kentucky businessman Bob Hutchison ($200,000); and Pace-O-Matic, a maker of the recently banned “gray machines” with cash payouts ($100,000).

American Principles Project is another PAC coming to Cameron’s aid this fall with $1.67 million of digital advertising hitting Beshear on transgender issues, with $1.5 million of that funding coming from Restoration PAC – a federal PAC that has been almost entirely funded by Wisconsin shipping supplies billionaire Richard Uihlein.

American Principles Project also received $170,000 this month from Our United Voice, a D.C.-based group that has not registered with the IRS or Federal Election Commission.

Also coming to Cameron’s aid with printed and mailed ads is Commonwealth Policy PAC, with $136,000 of its funding coming from the Commonwealth Policy Center, a socially conservative political advocacy group.

On the pro-Beshear side, more than 75% of the $17 million in funding for PACs supporting the incumbent have come from the DGA, which reported raising $24.5 million from donors in the first half of this year.

The DGA’s $13 million provided the bulk of the funding for the Defending Bluegrass Values PAC – which has aired more TV ads than any other PAC, largely attacking Cameron on a variety of issues – the PAC also received $1 million from the National Education Association, the national teachers union.

Local teachers unions have already provided heavy funding to Kentucky Family Values, a PAC that is funding a field operation to support Beshear. Kentucky Family Values received $300,000 from both the Kentucky Education Association and Better Schools Kentucky, the political arm of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

Other unions not involving teachers have pitched in more than $2 million of funding for both of the aforementioned PACs, including the United Auto Workers and those representing communications workers, plumbers and pipefitters and food and commercial workers.

Another PAC assisting Beshear is Planned Parenthood Action Kentucky, which purchased a $175,000 digital ad campaign hitting Cameron on his support for Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the national arm of the abortion provider, has contributed $200,000 to the local PAC.

The People’s Campaign is another smaller PAC helping Beshear with canvassing voters, which has almost entirely been funded by $50,000 from Christy Brown, a prominent Democratic donor from Louisville.

Maps and graphics created by Justin Hicks.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.

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