Kentucky Governor: Cameron Wins, Quarles Places, Craft Shows

by Jacob Rubashkin May 17, 2023 · 9:53 AM EDT

Not every race ends in a photo finish.

On Tuesday, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron easily won the GOP nomination for governor. He captured 48 percent of the vote, well ahead of state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who came in second with 22 percent.

Back in third was Kelly Craft, the former ambassador to the United Nations and GOP mega-donor who spent $11 million of her own money on the race but only won 17 percent.

Craft had spent a small fortune on TV beginning in late December, and by the end of March polling showed the first-time candidate moving past Quarles and creeping up toward Cameron, who led in polling the entire time.

But in April, Cameron and his allies began advertising on TV, airing negative ads on Craft and trumpeting the attorney general’s endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Craft’s super PAC went off the air, Quarles began advertising, and Cameron stabilized as the undisputed frontrunner.

Now, the McConnell protégé will face Gov. Andy Beshear, the lone statewide Democrat in the Bluegrass State. Beshear himself served as the state’s attorney general for one term before defeating an incumbent governor, Republican Matt Bevin, in 2019, by a narrow 49.2-48.3 percent margin. Cameron and Beshear also worked at the same Louisville law firm a decade ago.

The Beshear-Cameron clash will be the biggest gubernatorial fight of 2023, with national Democrats more focused on re-electing Beshear than holding onto the open seat in Louisiana (where Democrat John Bel Edwards is term-limited) or scoring an upset in Mississippi.

Beshear begins the general election with some clear advantages. He reported $6.1 million in the bank on May 1, while Cameron had just $340,000 — and likely spent most of that in the final two weeks of the race. 

The governor also has a golden last name (his father was governor for eight years). And perhaps most importantly, he has a high approval rating; a January poll from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy pegged it at 61 percent approve/29 percent disapprove. 

But Kentucky is a deeply Republican state, voting for Trump by 26 points in 2020. Its Inside Elections Baseline score is R+19.8, indicating that a typical Republican would win an election by about 20 points. In 2019, in a pro-Democratic political environment, against the most unpopular governor in the country, Beshear eked out just a 5,000-vote victory.

And the state has gotten less Democratic since then. What was a 6-point Democratic voter registration edge in 2019 (49-43 percent) has become a 2-point GOP advantage (46-44 percent). While voter registration does not equal partisan performance, it’s not a sign of health for Kentucky Democrats.

Beshear will run on his response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the natural disasters that have hit the state hard in recent years, including the tornadoes that hit Western Kentucky and the flooding in Eastern Kentucky. He’ll also highlight job growth in the state, and funding for the Brent Spence Bridge between Kentucky and Ohio.

His allies at the Democratic Governors Association have telegraphed that they will attack Cameron by tying him to the unpopular McConnell (as Craft did) and Bevin (especially on the question of Bevin’s controversial late-term pardons). Democrats also won’t shy away from Cameron’s handling of the investigation into the high-profile death of Breonna Taylor in 2020.

Cameron and his allies will work to leverage the state’s partisan lean by linking Beshear to Biden and the national Democratic Party. They will also focus on Beshear’s Covid-19 response, particularly his move to prevent in-person religious services in 2020, as well as abortion and transgender issues.

Gubernatorial races don’t always follow the same rules as federal politics, and voters across the country have shown a willingness to cross the aisle in those races when they would not for federal contests. That a Democrat is even remotely competitive in Kentucky, let alone the incumbent governor, is a testament to that. But Beshear has his work cut out for him, and Democrats can’t take this race for granted.