LEXINGTON – Dozens of shifting and disinterested county attorneys shift in their seats and make hushed conversation as the biography of Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is read aloud in a ballroom in downtown Lexington, Kentucky.
He stares back at a group from the front of the room standing to the side of the elevated stage, Quarles is considered by many to be an unannounced top contender for the GOP nomination for governor in 2023, that part is left out of the biography being read aloud, but likely chief among the reason he is in the room on this Wednesday in February.
The Kentucky County Attorney Association recognizes the 38-year old speaking in the first session of their three-day conference as “Dr. Ryan Quarles,” a title bestowed upon him after completing a doctorate in higher education from Vanderbilt during his term as Kentucky’s Ag Commissioner. The degrees do not stop there for Quarles, he holds three undergraduate degrees from the University of Kentucky in agricultural economics, public service and leadership, and political science. He also holds a Master’s of Education degree from Harvard, a Master’s of Science in Agricultural Economics from the University of Kentucky, a Master’s of Arts in Diplomacy and International Relations from the Patterson School of Diplomacy, and a J.D. from UK College of Law to round it out.
Quarles follows a “brief” 15-minute kick-off to the conference from Attorney General Daniel Cameron, R-Kentucky. Cameron is a new father, and he jokes he has not spent as much time on the road and in front of groups because of the change at home.
“Congratulations on being a father,” Quarles says as he takes the podium, and locks eyes with Cameron who is sitting in the front row his security standing nearby, “If you ever need a babysitter let me know.”
The odd and unscripted moment from the podium meandered into political terra incognita for the man likely to seek the governorship. Last year a whispered curiosity turned into a public moment at Fancy Farm when emcee Bob Babbage not subtly raised the issue of Quarles’ marital status, calling him, “Kentucky’s most eligible bachelor,” while asking for a show of hands of singles in the audience.
What that statement truly probes is one of relatability, something that, so far, has not hampered Quarles in two statewide campaigns and those close to him say will not hold him back now. The Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner with his wall full of degrees and dating life is unlike the average governor and unlike the average Kentuckian. According to demographics, a majority of Kentuckians are high school graduates, and they earn around $50,000 per household. Fifty-two percent of the state is married, and the average family has 2.5 people. Kentucky also holds an odd place in the statistical game, putting us in the top 10 states for those being married three or more times, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
On this Wednesday in Lexington, Quarles offers a review of his time as Agriculture Commissioner, and coincidentally, points at bits of his experience in office that could be relevant in a campaign against Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s first term. Beshear has managed to do a lot in his first term to which Quarles or any other Republican contender will need to attempt to undercut in a campaign.
“We also have oversight over every single animal disease in Kentucky with the exception of dogs and cats, we’re not the department of dogs and cats, we’re the department of agriculture,” he says with a flat affect to his speech. “So, those little things called Coronaviruses, that you may have heard of, we’ve been dealing with that for decades at the KDA.”
Beshear has dealt with the pandemic in his first term in office, as well as the recent tornadoes to sweep through the western portion of the state. He has earned a 60 percent approval rating in the process, a rating that improved year over year, according to a recent poll.
Quarles ticks through his office’s accomplishments, and fun facts, as he extends a branch to outlying parts of the state heavy in GOP support calling the Department of Agriculture the “voice of rural Kentucky,” as he dives into another area of comparison the December 2021 tornadoes and the role the Kentucky Agriculture Department played after the devastation.
“…[F]rom Fulton to even Spencer County we had to deal with animal welfare issues, [the tornadoes] depopulated well over a million birds from their poultry farms to prevent them from getting into places they don’t need to be,” he said.
“We do have a relief program up and running, so if you are from a county that had damage we have raised $1.1 million for the Kentucky Agriculture Relief Fund,” Quarles said, adding farmers could sign up for $1,500 in relief from the program.
There is one area where Quarles and Beshear are already facing off, in court. Beshear took round one, but Quarles is looking to the state Supreme Court, where he said “Beshear is suing me right now over the Kentucky State Fair.” A Jefferson Circuit Court judge ruled a bill granting Quarles the power of the State Fair Board was unconstitutional.
“I have a law degree too, so we’re going to be defending the Kentucky State Fair Board (…)” he said. “What’s interesting is that this is not COVID related, it’s not emergency powers related, or executive order related, it’s about a pure separation of powers issue in a conflict of law about whether or not the General Assembly has the ability to create an entity and whether or not they have the power to codify and edit that entity.”
As Quarles uses his current office to get in front of diverse groups, his communications director Sean Southard is transitioning to a role as the Communications Director for the Republican Party of Kentucky. Southard is a former UofL McConnell Scholar, who cut his teeth working for Scott Jennings of RunSwitch PR, an ally of U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. Many political insiders behind the scenes see the move as McConnell’s tacit backing of Quarles in the gubernatorial primary.
The Agriculture Commissioner split his 45 minute time at the podium with KDA general counsel, Joe Bilby, who is running for Franklin Circuit Judge against incumbent Chief Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd. Shepherd is powerful as the Court sees many political cases arising in Frankfort.
With the benefit of a statewide office and high name id, Quarles could potentially wait to enter a gubernatorial contest. Still, it would seem, he is not waiting to put the pieces together to run a strong race for the GOP nomination next year.