Touring the state in shadow campaigns, one benefit of incumbency

FRANKFORT – One sitting statewide official is leaning in on a potential race for governor and using his position as agriculture commissioner to conduct multiple tours of the commonwealth.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles embarked on an Ag-Tag tour in March visiting multiple counties in western Kentucky. The purpose behind the swing, encouraging Kentuckians to donate to state agriculture via the Agriculture license plate tag. Of course, in politics there’s usually more than one reason for doing anything. While he was promoting the tags and state agriculture, Quarles is also promoting his brand, his vision and maybe most importantly reestablishing local relationships ahead of what could be a contentious political season in 2023. 

Finding reasons to hit the road through his office and meet with potential voters and local elected officials, like county judge executives, is an old political trick and the benefit of incumbency in any statewide office or appointment. Picking a theme to get in front of these groups is the essence of a shadow campaign, and one taxpayers essentially underwrite. It’s nothing new, as countless other politicians have done the same. 

For Quarles, he’s also adding in broader themes for rural primary voters. In a speech in Owensboro, Kentucky, Quarles also spoke about rural internet and the need to expand broadband connectivity via last mile infrastructure. 

A second tour was announced by Quarles’ staff for a series of restaurant roundtables. This second swing is officially to thank restaurant workers for sourcing their food from local Kentucky farms and to hear firsthand the impact of COVID on their industry, and their livelihood. 

For the Quarles team this is also an early shot at Andy Beshear, an attempt at offering contrast with the first term Democratic governor. While Beshear makes daily COVID appearances at the Capitol, Quarles will be sitting across the table from restaurant workers and casting Beshear as the bad guy who shut down their industry. 

“It’s necessary to get outside of the Frankfort bubble and talk to Kentuckians,” said Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles in a statement sent to KFP. “I strongly believe leaders should reach out to their constituents and get their feedback when making public policy decisions that affect the lives of our small business owners and blue collar workers. As Agriculture Commissioner, I’ve put an emphasis on traveling to Kentuckians and taking what I’ve learned from them back to Frankfort.

“Some officials in Frankfort, like the Governor, seem to think differently,” he continued. “Kentucky’s too big of a state to sit at your desk and assume you know everything there is to know about our people.”

Quarles will visit Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, Owensboro, and London, Kentucky in this second swing. 

These types of maneuvers are nothing new to Kentucky politics. Former Agriculture Commissioner James Comer visited all 120 counties prior to running for governor in 2015. In that tour Comer promoted his vision for the hemp economy in Kentucky.  In addition to speaking in front of groups, during that shadow campaign Comer would tie in the visits a meeting with local powerbrokers, like James Booth of Inez, a powerful coal magnate who donated to Democrats and Republicans.   

Quarles is not the only one currently finding the public spotlight to talk about his current role. Kelly Knight Craft, the former UN and Canadian Ambassador under the Trump administration, is also popping up in interviews and joining local chamber luncheons via Zoom to talk about her experiences in office.