Kentucky Derby 2023: Political messages take to the skies over Churchill Downs

·4 min read

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane pulling a political message over Churchill Downs!

The main attraction at the Louisville track Saturday was the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby, but planes overhead snagged a bit of attention, too.

In the hours before the big race, a plane carrying a banner than read “” circled the area, which prompted backlash from the Kentucky Republican.

“1) Nothing spells “INTIMIDATION” more than Biden’s dark money PAC paying a plane to fly over #KentuckyDerby to attack me for simply investigating public corruption,” U.S. Rep. James Comer, chair of the House Oversight Committee, tweeted. “2) This desperate political stunt by the Bidens is helping me (praying hands emoji) so much politically in Kentucky today, I wonder if I will be required to list it as an in-kind donation from China on my next campaign finance report?”

The website in question redirects to a news article about a group, the Congressional Integrity Project, urging an investigation into Comer’s potential involvement in leaking emails during the 2015 Kentucky governor’s race.

The demand for an investigation followed a New York Times article in which Comer admits to leaking emails to the Herald-Leader and “strongly hinted he had gotten them from the server,” the Times reported in March.

A group called the Congressional Integrity Project took credit for the banner.

“Comer all but admitted to the New York Times that his gubernatorial campaign had a hand in stealing a server, hacking emails, and leaking them to intimidate a former girlfriend and to hurt his political opponent, and he needs to be investigated and held responsible for his actions,” Congressional Integrity Project executive director Kyle Herrig said in a statement. “His constituents deserve to know who their Representative really is. ... What credibility does he have to conduct oversight investigations into others when he won’t even answer for his own actions to further his political career?”

Additionally, Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Deters, a suspended attorney in Northern Kentucky who is largely self-funding his campaign, also had a banner overhead.

It read: “Deters For Governor. Vote May 16.” He asked his followers to send photos to him.

(Other banners in the skies over Churchill Downs: pest control services and an OnlyFans account URL.)

With 10 days until the May 16 primary, another Republican candidate took a more traditional approach to campaigning. Auditor Mike Harmon was at Churchill Downs was in the stands with his wife Lynn — Papaw and Peaches to their grandkids — where he was wearing a campaign sticker on his lapel. Harmon, who has been trailing in recent polls, was out and about talking to potential voters.

Harmon will take part in the WKYT debate Monday evening and said he’s feeling good as the race heads into the final stretch.

“Polling is never reflective of my races,” Harmon said, noting how he beat a much more well-funded incumbent, Adam Edelen, in 2015.

Kentucky governor Andy Beshear takes to the red carpet with family at Churchill Downs before the start of 149th Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday, May 6, 2023.
Kentucky governor Andy Beshear takes to the red carpet with family at Churchill Downs before the start of 149th Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday, May 6, 2023.

But the most important thing, he said, is coming together after the primary and uniting to beat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. Harmon said he’s been disappointed in the negative tone in the primary, but hopes all his fellow candidates can move past that come May 17.

Beshear said he isn’t yet thinking about who his general election opponent will be. He also noted he “technically” has a primary himself; perennial candidate Geoff Young and former Republican nominee for governor Peppy Martin are both challenging Beshear.

“When you’ve been the governor during covid, tornadoes, flooding, the recent string of shootings, the polar plunge, you don’t lose sleep at night over who your opponent’s going to be,” Beshear said from the red carpet.