FANCY FARM – In the 24-hour political circus that ends with the Fancy Farm Picnic, Daniel Cameron was always in the center ring.
Kentucky’s attorney general showed why he’s the candidate to beat in next May’s Republican primary for governor, but he also showed why Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear could beat him in the general election. And Cameron doubled down on that Tuesday. But first, let’s look at last weekend.
Cameron showed up fashionably late for The Night Before Fancy Farm dinner at Calvert City, and immediately became the main object of attention from the Republican faithful. Then he gave a speech with a philosophical introduction that rose above other speakers.
“Common sense and fair play have been the driving force for this party,” from Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery “to make the founding of this country mean something,” to Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting and Ronald Reagan’s bureaucrat-busting, Cameron declared. “It must be our future as well.”
After shots at Beshear and President Biden, Cameron got to his main selling points as he seeks Republican votes:
“Because of our office’s work, abortion clinics are closed in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
His aggressive legal work won a stay of a lower-court ruling that blocked the state’s “trigger law” for a near-total abortion ban in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned. No issue is bigger for Republicans.
“I think most of you know that President Donald J. Trump endorsed my campaign for governor.”
The applause for that line was much milder than for the one on abortion, reflecting some Republicans’ growing weariness and wariness of Trump.
Trump’s endorsement may still be the coin of the realm in the Republican primary, but not among persuadable voters – and all bets should be off anyway, because Attorney General Merrick Garland has now gone after Trump in a very public way, with the FBI’s execution of a search warrant Monday at his Florida home. (It’s not a “raid” if they tell you they’re coming.)
Cameron defended Trump Tuesday afternoon without criticizing the Justice Department directly: “President Trump is a fighter. No raid at Mar-a-Lago is going to stop him from working hard for the American people. Folks here in Kentucky will always support someone the media despises and the left hates, because it means that person is standing up for their values.”
That might sound like a brain-dead appeal to the Trump personality cult that infects the GOP, but it showed Cameron’s ability to please the base while steering well clear of the anti-FBI rhetoric of some other Republicans and thus limiting the damage for the state’s chief law-enforcement officer among more discerning voters.
For any candidate endorsed by Trump, the biggest question is whether the candidate believes the 2020 presidential election was fairly decided. Cameron repeatedly refused to answer that question from journalists, always saying the Kentucky election was fair. That has never been in question.
Cameron also refused to answer when asked if Trump provoked than Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which is how his mentor Mitch McConnell put it in 2021. But in his public presentations, Cameron showed that McConnell knows good talent when he sees it.
Cameron did better at answering why his office didn’t get any indictments of the Louisville police officers who burst into Breonna Taylor’s apartment, resulting in her death. He noted that the indictments handed up the day before were for violations of a federal civil-rights law. But when asked at Fancy Farm about the false testimony that got two officers indicted federally, and appeared to violate state law, he said “We were tasked with looking at the night in question” and wouldn’t say who did the “tasking.”
At Calvert City, Cameron planted himself firmly on the side of police and against their critics: “I don’t care what anybody says in the national media, when it comes to supporting and defending law enforcement, we are going to do that. We are going to back the blue.”
He said much the same over Democrats’ chants of “Breonna Taylor” at the Fancy Farm speaking, and said the Taylor controversy showed his mettle: “Republicans need a nominee who has been in the arena.” He said Democrats attack him so often because “They’ve seen the polls and they know the truth.”
The only poll we’ve seen showed Cameron far ahead, but appeared to merely reflect his high name recognition among Republicans, without reckoning respondents’ likelihood of voting in GOP primaries, which have notoriously low turnout.
Cameron does have the ability to excite Republicans, perhaps motivating them to the polls and next spring, but if nominated he will also be a turnout motivator for Democratic voters in the fall, particularly among his and Breonna Taylor’s fellow African Americans. And maybe among Republican-leaning voters who go sour on Trump.
In the arena at Fancy Farm, the most courageous person was Jimmy Ausbrooks, the Democrat running against Republican First District Rep. James Comer. Amid repeated slurs from other Republicans against transgender (and , by implication, gay) people, Ausbrooks announced that he is gay, and “We are human beings.” He stood strong and delivered his speech without a single bobble, in the face of the usual Fancy Farm heckling, but did stop for one crowd chant: “Who are you?” Now we know.
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.
NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.