Kentucky’s bitter GOP governor primary comes to a head

Kentucky’s contentious GOP gubernatorial primary is drawing to a finish Tuesday in a race that poses high stakes for the party looking to unseat Gov. Andy Beshear (D).

State Attorney General Daniel Cameron, former U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles have regularly polled as the three main front-runners in the crowded Republican primary field jockeying to take on Beshear this fall, with Cameron widely viewed as leading the field.

But Cameron and Craft have largely used their ammo on each other between the debate stage and millions of dollars in attack ads, leaving Republicans eager to move past the bruising primary and focus on the more challenging test ahead: taking down a popular red-state Democrat.

“I still think that Cameron’s in a really strong position. He’s just a very popular figure,” said Republican public affairs consultant Tyler Glick.

While he noted Craft’s attacks had “eaten into his numbers a bit,” Glick argued that didn’t mean voters were heading toward Craft instead. “I think he’s weathered the worst of it,” he said, pointing to the establishment of the super PAC supporting him and spending to be able to counter those attacks.

Kentucky Republicans will head to the polls next week to choose their candidate to go head-to-head with Beshear in November in a race that has seen at least $12 million spent in the primary alone.

Polling in the primary has been sparse. An April FOX 56/Emerson College poll showed Cameron with 30 percent support, Craft with 24 percent and Quarles at 15 percent. Twenty-one percent were undecided, and none of the seven other candidates included reached double digits. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

The stakes for Republicans are twofold: Republicans will need to effectively coalesce around one candidate if they have any hope of chipping away at the popular governor’s support in order to flip the governor’s mansion.

But there are national implications, too. Should Beshear walk away with another term, that could cause some anxiety at the national level for Republicans who will look at the gubernatorial race as a bellwether for 2024.

In a primary where its three top candidates have largely been aligned on key issues like abortion and gun rights, Cameron, Craft and Quarles have relied on endorsements, the airwaves and strategy to differentiate themselves from the pack.

“I think Craft is going to be, ‘I saw her ad and like her.’ I think Cameron is going to be, ‘I’m familiar with him. He’s got the Trump endorsement,'” said GOP strategist and former Quarles campaign manager Tres Watson.

“And Quarles is going to be more kind of, ‘I know that guy, he’s been elected twice statewide by very large margins, and he’s got the strongest grassroots network.'”

In recent weeks, the already contentious primary has grown more heated. A pro-Cameron super PAC mailed flyers showing a picture of Craft with $100 bills thrown over her. “Kelly Craft Trying to Lie & Buy Her Way to Frankfort,” the mailer read, encouraging readers to go to “OklahomaKelly.com” — a nod to the accusation that Craft is a carpetbagger.

Cameron has needled Craft about not getting Trump’s endorsement during a recent debate hosted by the Kentucky Educational Television (KET) — an endorsement Kentucky-based GOP strategist Scott Jennings said is “probably enough to win.”

“Kelly, you spent six months telling folks that you were going to get the Donald Trump endorsement. You had him at the [Kentucky] Derby last year. And then I got the endorsement, and your team has been scrambling ever since,” Cameron said during the KET debate.

Craft, who launched attack ads against Cameron along with a group supporting her during the primary, sent out a mailer late last month depicting the faces of Cameron and Beshear as “two sides of the same coin.” She’s also enlisted the support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and 2024 GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy in the final stretch before Tuesday.

“In the final days of the primary, Kelly continues to crisscross the Commonwealth to meet Kentuckians who all want the same thing: removing woke ideologies from our schools, fighting the fentanyl crisis, and growing the economy,” Craft campaign spokesperson Weston Loyd said in a statement to The Hill.

“These are all issues that Kelly is familiar with, and her experience helping President Trump rip up NAFTA and standing up to the Chinese Communist Party enables her to hit the ground running as Governor on her first day in office,” he added.

Meanwhile, Quarles has managed to avoid quarreling between the other two candidates while launching an ad notably called “Mud Slingin'” to take implicit jabs at Cameron and Craft for launching negative ads or for not participating in debates.

“The only poll I’m worried about is the one on May 16 when this election concludes, but we’re focused on nobody’s race but my own,” Quarles told The Hill in an interview. “We have been able to stay out of the negativity of this race and just focus on ideas, and I think a lot of Republican primary voters will reward me for that.”

While Republicans have brushed off the idea that the members of the party will have a hard time unifying around the eventual nominee even as opposition ads and critical comments have piled up, the state GOP is notably holding a unity event following the primary to avoid any post-primary tension.

“The one thing you hear consistently is, ‘I’ll be glad when it’s over so we can all be on the same team again,’” Jennings said.

“I did not feel that way in ’19,” Jennings said. “There were bunches of Republicans who had no interest in supporting Matt Bevin … and ultimately did not. And I just don’t sense that this time.”

One variable throwing some uncertainty into the race is voter turnout, which the Kentucky Secretary of State projects could be around 10 percent, according to WLKY News.

Still, Republicans believe they’ll have a strong case to make against Beshear no matter who the nominee is, with Republicans pointing to voters’ party affiliation in the state as one data point.

Registered Republicans overtook Democrats in Kentucky last year. According to data from the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office, there were around 53,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in April. In November 2019, by comparison, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 213,000.

Beshear “won with 5,000 votes in 2019. We’ve increased voter registration by well over 100,000 Republicans since then,” said one GOP strategist in the state. “And so the fundamentals in this election could not be … better for whoever the Republican nominee is. Having the [GOP] nomination is one of the best attributes any candidate running for office in Kentucky can have.”

But Democrats and Republicans acknowledge beating Beshear will be no easy feat given his unusually strong approval ratings in a state Trump won by double digits in 2020. Beshear’s approval rating was at 63 percent in a Morning Consult poll released last month and at 61 percent in a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll from January.

Dave Contarino, a Kentucky-based Democratic strategist who’s worked on gubernatorial campaigns around the country, said he thinks Beshear “has broad support among independents, and I think he has demonstrated with 61 percent approval rating that he’s got some percentage of Republicans actively supporting him.”

Colmon Elridge, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, likes the party’s odds, too.

“The notion that he cannot work in a bipartisan way is just fiction,” Elridge said, pointing to the funding secured for the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project that received bipartisan support. “What he has done and what he continues to stand up against is cruelty and overreach.”

Ultimately, Republicans say they’ll need to adequately make the case against Beshear while also offering their own vision for the governor’s mansion.

“We got to walk and chew gum at the same time,” the GOP strategist said. “We’ve got to make sure that we educate Kentuckians about the record of the governor, but we also need to make sure that we present a plan for how we would lead with a vision for a Republican governor, what a blueprint would be for a Republican governor [on] day one in office.”

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