Welcome, Derby visitors!
Kentucky’s annual turn on the national stage is our chance to look at the state’s politics with a national perspective. This year we’re electing a governor and other state constitutional officers, and messages in the May 16 Republican primary are dominated by the national themes of identity politics and the culture war; even agriculture-commissioner candidate ads decry ”woke liberals.”
We have national players, including Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, who despite their enmity appear to be aligned in the governor’s race; and Kentucky quirks, such as a billionaire coal operator spending record sums for a primary to get the governorship for his wife, who has never held elective office. Here’s the program for the political derby:
The favorite remains Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a McConnell protégé who apparently won Trump’s endorsement last summer with a poll showing him way ahead. That was before the entry of Kelly Craft, who became Trump’s ambassador to Canada and the United Nations after she and her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, raised a lot of money for his political causes (and McConnell’s).
McConnell, who likes to stay out of in-state primaries, is publicly neutral. But someone’s been raising money for a PAC backing Cameron, and Craft seems to believe it’s the senator or his minions. One of her latest TV ads slams “career politicians who’d rather follow than lead” as the screen shows side-by-side photos of McConnell and Cameron.
Throwing shade on Kentucky’s top Republican in a GOP primary night seem odd, but McConnell is the least popular senator in the nation, according to home-state polling, and in a primary with little difference on issues, tagging your main opponent with his unpopular but well-known mentor makes sense. Another Craft ad, about her work for Trump, seems designed to make it look as if he has endorsed her.
Only one member of Kentucky’s congressional delegation is publicly supporting a candidate: First District Rep. James Comer, who’s backing Craft in an apparent return favor for the Crafts’ support of his 2015 gubernatorial campaign, which lost the primary to Matt Bevin by 83 votes. If Craft defeats a McConnell acolyte, it could signal a seismic shift in Kentucky politics.
A Craft-Comer faction would be a mainly rural one, like Comer’s district. The state GOP has a history of rural-urban divides, and Cameron’s base is the Louisville region, where he needs a good turnout, which is in doubt. Some moderate Republicans there may dislike how he handled the grand-jury investigation of the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, but they may like the idea of their party producing the state’s first African American governor.
Race could be a factor. Cameron is the first African American independently elected to statewide office in Kentucky, a state that is only 8% Black and has many voters who still don’t know a person of color. The exit poll in the Obama-Clinton Democratic presidential primary in 2008 found that 16 percent of white voters said the race of the candidates was important to them, and in Kentucky at the time, rural white Democrats and Republicans differed little culturally. Since then, many culturally conservative Democrats have become Republicans, giving the party the edge in voter registration.
Despite that and other historic shifts to the right, Kentuckians ousted Bevin in 2019 because he ran his mouth too much and made too many enemies. The winner, by 0.4% of the vote, was Democrat Andy Beshear, whose work on the pandemic built popular support that seems to be lasting; he is the nation’s most popular Democratic governor, and fifth overall.
Beshear has nominal opposition in the primary, but the Republican Governors Association seems to be trying to gin up anti-Beshear vote from social conservatives who remain registered Democratic, with TV commercials alleging that he “seems to think young children are ready to make decisions about changing their gender,” one of many TV-ad falsehoods that are confusing voters. When Beshear vetoed a bill banning gender-affirming care of minors, he said those decisions should be left to parents. That stance was strongly favored in a statewide poll, but just because voters have an opinion doesn’t mean they will base their votes on it.
The Republican who wins the primary will keep trying to cast Beshear as a captive of his party’s woke wing, and if it’s Craft, she will likely get the endorsement of Trump, who remains strong in Kentucky. (He reiterated his endorsement of Cameron in a Twitter video just before the first Cameron-Craft debate faceoff Monday.) If Ag Commissioner Ryan Quarles wins, Trump may not play; Quarles said in an earlier debate that he favored Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over Trump for president. Quarles is the most traditional Republican in the primary, but Trump has changed the party, especially in Kentucky. Just ask McConnell.
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. We offer it to other publications throughout the commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.