We all know the elected politicians at the heart of our state government, but those influencing legislation, putting lawmakers in the seats, and pulling the strings are true brokers of clout. They can open doors or close them, they pass legislation or ensure a bill dies a slow death in the committee-on-committees, in short – they are the people who pull the strings and if the time arises, collect scalps.
Kentucky Fried Politics looked at multiple criteria to make this list, including: relationships i.e. what kind of access do they have, are lawmakers answering or is the call landing in voicemail or text message purgatory. In addition, we looked for influencing power in the form of placing politicians in the Capitol via campaigns, donations, or keeping lawmakers in power. We also looked at track record, when there’s a skirmish who has a strategic mind and can wield their clout effectively. There’s an almost organic ebb and flow to power, and old-power brokers of Frankfort are still there – but there is a new crop of brokers garnering influence, this list is indicative of that power shift.
After serious deliberation these 20 people make the inaugural list of Kentucky Fried Politics’ Power Brokers who stand above the rest.
If you would like to nominate someone for this list or our upcoming top 20 staffers list, please send us a note at Nick.Storm@Kentuckyfried.com
- La Tasha Buckner – She’s Gov. Andy Beshear’s right hand. His go-to. This Glasgow, Kentucky, native, is the gatekeeper for the governor. Buckner serves as both Beshear’s chief of staff and his general counsel. The dual posting is a first for the state. She previously worked alongside Beshear in the Office of the Kentucky Attorney General where she served as the assistant deputy attorney general and head of the civil division, which meant she was the tip of the spear against Gov. Bevin. Some Republicans were nervous about Buckner then and sought to discredit her. Now, if something is going down that involves Beshear, count on Buckner to know about it first. She’s also frequently mentioned in the rumor mill as the next United States Attorney in Kentucky, a presidential appointment.
- John McCarthy – He’s the former chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, and has been consistently among the top-paid lobbyists in the state, especially since the House veered right. McCarthy is the founder and managing partner of McCarthy Strategic Solutions. He boasts of his relationships in the state in his official bio, saying “there isn’t a better-connected Republican in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” While it’s a ballsy claim, it’s also true.
- Patrick Jennings – Count Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, as one of this lobbyist’s close friends. The two are neighbors and were close prior to Jennings joining the lobbyist corps. Jennings has deep ties to Republican political campaigns going back to the late ’90s. He cut his teeth working with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, and then as the chief lobbyist for Kentucky Farm Bureau. He opened his own lobbying shop in 2008. In 2020, Jennings’ team at Commonwealth Alliances was able to shepherd the hotly contested Senate Bill 50 through the legislative process on behalf of independent pharmacists. The bill, which was a first in the nation, essentially centrally locates the naming of a singular pharmacy benefit manager for managed care organizations with the secretary of the health cabinet. The move is big business representing $1.7 billion in spending for prescription drugs a year. By naming a single PBM the law is aimed at de-cluttering a complex system of PBMs and MCOs bickering and negotiating individual agreements. Jennings serves on the Republican Party of Kentucky’s executive committee, central committee, and as the finance chairman.
- Barry Dunn – The former general counsel of the Public Protection Cabinet is calling the shots at the state’s top law enforcement and prosecutorial post. Nearly all decisions at the state Attorney General’s Office run through the Adair County native.
- Vince Fields – He’s the go to guy when it comes to ads for pretty much everyone in the GOP. He did the creative work for nearly all of the state constitutional officers in 2015, he does the ad work for the Senate and House and is well regarded in the GOP circles. “Vince Fields and Grit Creative is the go to shop for the Kentucky Senate Republicans,” said Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer.
- Terry Carmack – U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s former state director is in D.C. now as the senior senator’s chief of staff, but Carmack still wields a cumbersome Rolodex, not to mention a massive political war chest. Carmack has held numerous positions for McConnell, starting out in the mailroom in 1985 for the then first-term senator. He has also worked for numerous Republicans since that time. Carmack will likely still control McConnell’s goodwill war-chest in the form of the Bluegrass Committee which props up GOP candidates across the state.
- Marc Wilson – AKA “The Big Tuna” can be found prowling the halls of the Capitol and Capitol Annex, at least he could prior to the COVID restrictions. Wilson is a partner at Top Shelf Lobby where he represents everyone from CVS, Draft Kings, and USA Today. Big Tuna also has deep ties to Speaker Osborne, the two are partners on a horse racing venture.
- Jonathan Shell – The Rockcastle Co. farmer and former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives has found powerful allies since leaving office in 2019 due to an intraparty skirmish. Shell served as campaign chairman for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2020 Senate campaign. He also serves as the state director for the Pegasus Institute, a Louisville-based think-tank. Shell was the youngest ever elected to the Kentucky General Assembly and is rumored to be eyeing the position of Agriculture Commissioner in 2023. Shell also helped a class of GOP lawmakers make their way to Frankfort, recruiting and helping them achieve power – that has not been forgotten.
- Bob Babbage – The former Democratic State Auditor (1988-1992) and Secretary of State (1992 – 1996) is among the top paid lobbyists in the state representing business interests before Democrats and Republicans in Frankfort. Babbage is the managing partner of Babbage Co-Founder, and makes frequent television and radio appearances offering analysis. Babbage could be a case study in holding on to power and shifting with the times.
- Scott Jennings – The conservative commentator for CNN is a founding partner for Louisville-based RunSwitch, a PR and Public Affairs firm. Jennings is close to McConnell and helped his campaigns dating back to 2002. He ran a pro-McConnell super PAC in 2014. Jennings worked for the George W. Bush White House in 2005 working closely with Karl Rove. Jennings is the general consultant for Brett Guthrie, and he writes a regular political column for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He can now be seen maneuvering potential candidates behind the scenes, most recently being linked with former Ambassador Kelly Craft.
- Ashli Watts – As the president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Watts is in regular contact with lawmakers in Frankfort. The chamber may not be pushing candidates, like others on this list, but they are bringing a mountain of business related legislation in front of the General Assembly. She has effectively positioned the chamber to work with the GOP super majorities in recent years.
- Tyler Glick – The GOP political operative plays in both the political and legislative spheres in the bluegrass, and is an up and comer in the influence sphere. Glick is the founder of Glick Strategies, a Louisville based public relations and public affairs shop that deals with everything from issue campaigns to public opinion polling. Before hanging a shingle, Tyler worked on high level campaigns, including playing a key in role in Gov. Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire 2012 primary victory. Tyler subsequently served as a Field Director in seven other states throughout the Republican presidential primary season. “The seasoning that comes from working on political campaigns is tremendous,” Glick told KFP. “It forces the mind to learn to process a lot of information at once. Things move fast and you’re able to forge lasting connections with a large number of people.”
- Sarah Van Walleghen – Working her way up through the ranks of the Republican Party of Kentucky, Van Walleghen was named the executive director for RPK in 2017. Republicans have made huge strides in recent years, officially cementing their gains from the 2016 election season when those candidates were sworn in and taking control of the House in 2017 – the first time in 95 years. Since that time, RPK has scooped up seats, adding to their super majorities.
- Ellen Williams – The former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Kentucky is still known to darken the doors of those in power, and call in favors. Williams was successful at RPK, winning a majority in the state Senate for the first time in the history of the state, and helping elect the first GOP governor in 32 years. She works as a lobbyist.
- Tres Watson – The “whisperer,” veteran campaign strategist and former spokesperson of the Republican Party of Kentucky keeps his finger on the pulse of the Kentucky political landscape. Watson co-hosts Kentucky Politics Weekly, a podcast that offers analysis on Kentucky politics. He also operates Capitol Reins PR. Watson is close with Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, a rumored candidate for governor. He ran Quarles’ first statewide campaign in 2015.
- Kate Miller – The ACLU of Kentucky has gotten some impressive wins, and a lot of that is due to the efforts of Miller. The advocacy director of the organization has managed to befriend Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature and find common ground on bills.
- Dan Bayens – Republican media consultant, co-founder and content director of Republican ad firm Content Creative Media, Bayens has been around Kentucky political campaigns of all shapes and sizes. He served as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s state spokesperson from 2011 to 2015, and previously served Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Congresswoman Anne Northup. Now Bayens is convincing Kentuckians to elect Republicans with a group that writes, produces, and places the creative with media stations.
- Karen Kelly – She’s been serving as U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers District Director since 2013, but Kelly has been in the 5thDistrict Congressman’s orbit far longer than that. She served as a field rep for Rogers in the mid 90’s and helped launch and then run Rogers’ baby, Operation UNITE in south east Kentucky.
- Matt Erwin – The Georgia native is the former spokesperson of the Kentucky Democratic Party and a veteran of campaigns at all levels. He worked for former Auditor Adam Edelen during his run for governor in the 2019 Democratic primary. Erwin is Louisville based and makes frequent appearances on Kentucky Educational Television (KET) as a political analyst.
- Jamie Emmons – The chief of staff of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has a long history with cabinet Secretary Jim Gray. Emmons ran Gray’s campaigns for mayor of Lexington, and followed him into office as his chief of staff where he spent 8 years. Now, Emmons continues to be a mainstay for Gray in the Department of Transportation. While Gray may be the ideas man, it’s Emmons who pushes the ideas forward and executes them on his behalf.