Here’s where the GOP Primary Race for Governor Stands With Less Than 100 Days Until the Election

With less than 100 days until the May 16 primary election early polling suggests a possible three-way race developing for the Republican nomination with Attorney General Daniel Cameron currently enjoying a substantial lead.

With a dozen Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge first-term Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in the fall, several have tried to nationalize the race with red-meat issues of immigration and illicit drugs, and one is angling for grassroots support with endorsements at the county level.

Cameron, who has had a close relationship with Republican U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell since serving as an intern and later as his general counsel may have irritated his mentor by joining this race last May. A dozen Kentucky GOP sources have claimed for more than a year that McConnell is frustrated with Cameron for joining this race, and, perhaps, not following McConnell into the Senate after he retires – something he seemed on the short track to accomplish.

“When I first met him, I knew [McConnell] was somebody I wanted to emulate. I have held him in high regard since the first time I met him,” Cameron was quoted as telling UofL in 2015 about his mentor.

The first-term Attorney General suffered a shaky financial start to the campaign last year, which was unsuccessful at keeping Republican rival Kelly Craft out of the race. Since that time Cameron has been able to draw significant fundraising of just less than $1 million and earn former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. He has struggled to garner endorsements at home, bringing on board many of the same members of law enforcement who endorsed his candidacy for AG in 2019.

Cameron is seeking to nationalize the race around hot-button issues that fall into his purview as the Attorney General.

Recent public polling by Mason-Dixon shows Cameron with a 20-point lead over his next nearest rival, Kelly Craft. The poll, conducted January 18 through Jan. 23, shows Cameron with 39 percent of GOP respondents saying they would vote for him. However, 28 percent of respondents are undecided and 18 percent of respondents said they hold and unfavorable view of the candidate, with another 35 percent are neutral, according to the polling. Only 17 percent of GOP respondents did not recognize Cameron’s name.

Trump’s endorsement was a major blow to Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft. The wife of Oklahoma billionaire Joe Craft, the CEO of Alliance Coal, Kelly will have money to spend in this primary race.

he has been a financial fixture in Kentucky politics going back more than two decades. However, this is her first run for an elected position and her inexperience has shown with first-time candidate faux pas and unforced errors.

Craft has raised big, and spent big, and many assume she will reach into her own pocket in a substantial way. She has been on television early and presumably plans to stay on air through the May 16 primary. The spending on television comes as part of a strategy to raise her name identification numbers.

Fifty-three percent of all respondents in the Mason-Dixon poll said they did not recognize her name. Polling has her with 14 percent of the vote, but many insiders expect her numbers to climb the more she puts tv and radio points behind her messaging.

Craft has turned to Axiom Strategies, who was the campaign strategist behind Glenn Younkin’s 2021 gubernatorial win in Virginia, to consult for her campaign, and she has scooped up a handful of Kentucky consultants including Brad Shattuck, and younger staffers like Lauren Hogan, who serves as her deputy political director, and Ty Sharp, who is a regional political director.

Campaign expenditure records also show consulting from Lindsay Reynolds, an event planner who formerly served as chief of staff for First Lady Melania Trump. Carter Davidson, a D.C. consulting firm is also on her payroll, according to her latest campaign finance report filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Kristen Branscum, Craft’s chief of staff from her days with the United Nations is also on the payroll at the campaign.

Craft’s wealth and previous financial support for McConnell will keep the Senate leader from playing party boss in the race. Craft is still finding her voice from the stump, while she manages to dodge most media she is making numerous campaign appearances.

Her money and relationships are keeping some on the Republican side of the aisle from taking a jab at the former ambassador. Her nearest rival in polling, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is a friend who vowed to stay positive in the race.

She has been endorsed by Republican Congressman James Comer, whose star has risen in the U.S House as Republicans have taken the chamber.

Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, who is a close Comer ally is Craft’s running mate. Not all candidates are selecting running mates, as a new law changes the deadline to name a candidate for Lt. Governor on a ticket until after the primary. Selecting a running mate could also lead to everyone currently in the race staying in the contest until the primary day, and not dropping out to endorse a favored candidate.

Playing the role of the underdog but with a substantial list of endorsements is Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, R-Kentucky. After nearly 8-years in statewide office, Quarles has soft name identification with Republican voters. Forty-five percent of GOP respondents in the Mason-Dixon poll did not recognize him.

Quarles will need more money to gain voter recognition, he has raised just shy of $1 million for the race. His last fundraising quarter of 2022 raised concern from some close watchers of the race, they are buzzing that he needs to show a quality first-quarter report.

Over 200 Kentucky elected officials including nearly one-quarter of all County Judge Executives, over 25 members of the General Assembly, and dozens of magistrates from all over Kentucky are endorsing Quarles in the race.

His path could be in waiting for the opportunity of Cameron and Craft squaring up and picking up supporters who peel off of those two.

With a dozen candidates overall, and generally less than 260,000 Republicans casting their vote in the primary every vote matters and candidates are expected to pull out all the stops to make their case.

Still, whoever clears the GOP primary does not have an easy road ahead against a popular incumbent in Gov. Andy Beshear.