With GOP frontrunners missing, governor candidates take Northern Kentucky debate stage

Deters makes first debate appearance alongside Keck, Quarles and Harmon

By: - April 26, 2023 10:14 pm

From left to right, Republican governor candidates Ryan Quarles, Alan Keck, Mike Harmon and Eric Deters debate in Northern Kentucky. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

COVINGTON — Seven of the dozen Republicans running for governor took part in a two-night debate in Northern Kentucky this week. 

Four candidates faced off in a debate Wednesday night. Three of the candidates — Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and State Auditor Mike Harmon — have appeared alongside each other in past debates, including last week in Paducah and Louisville. 

Wednesday’s event marked the first time they debated suspended Northern Kentucky Attorney Eric Deters, who reported giving $567,875 to his campaign in the first quarter of 2023. 

Last month, Deters pleaded guilty to two counts of harassing communications and a single count of menacing related to a truck chase after his teenage nephew flipped him off. The charges are all misdemeanors. He has since said it would not affect his gubernatorial run. 

Deters said in his opening statement that he was the “only one supporting Trump” of the four present Wednesday. However, Quarles was one of three candidates to denounce the former president’s indictment last month. During the Kentucky Sports Radio Debate, Harmon said he would vote for Trump in a 2024 presidential primary election. 

Throughout the evening, Deters also vowed to be reachable by all Kentuckians if elected and gave out his cell phone number. 

In response to a question about how he would engage voters in Northern Kentucky, Deters said it was past time to again have a governor from from the the region, which he said is  viewed as a “red-headed stepchild.” 

“You know why we haven’t had a governor since (​​William) Goebel? … It’s because there hasn’t been anyone from Northern Kentucky until this candidacy where there was a Northern Kentuckian who could connect with average Jane and Joe Kentuckians, rank and file, across the state and I’m doing that,” Deters said. 

 (Goebel from Covington was governor for three days in 1900 after a disputed election and is the only U.S. governor to have been assassinated in office.)

Two Republican frontrunners in the race, Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, did not attend though debate organizers said all 12 Republican candidates were invited. Cameron and Craft have yet to face each other in a public debate. 

A FOX 56/Emerson poll released in mid-April showed Deters polling at 6%, or fourth place in the primary. The top three were Cameron at 30.1%, Craft at 23.9% and Quarles at 14.9%. The poll showed that 20.7% of likely Republican primary voters surveyed were undecided at the time. 

Three candidates —  Jacob Clark, David Cooper and Bob DeVore— debated Tuesday night and received similar questions. An earlier press release said another candidate, Robbie Smith, would debate with them but he did not attend. 

The events were hosted by the Kenton County Republican Party, WCPO 9, and LINK nky. Questions focused on statewide issues as well as topics related to Northern Kentucky. 

Quarles, who has been running a grassroots-style campaign focused on rural Kentucky, highlighted his family connections to Northern Kentucky throughout the debate. He said his mother was from the area and his great grandfather ran a speakeasy in Covington during prohibition. Amid his policies for the region, he promised to work toward fixing potholes along Interstates 75 and 71.

“It’s time for the taxpayer money that this area generates to come back to Northern Kentucky,” Quarles said. 

During Wednesday’s portion, the candidates were quick to criticize incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. In response to a question asking what they thought Beshear did well during that time, both Deters and Harmon said nothing was good and criticized the closures of church gatherings in early 2020. 

“It’s so important that we have someone that is going to protect our liberties, that’s going to protect our freedoms, and Gov. Beshear is not it,” Harmon said. 

Quarles answered that he thought that list of Beshear accomplishments was short but said the state receiving a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver to provide children with meals during the coronavirus pandemic required support from both the governor’s office and the Department of Agriculture. 

Keck responded by saying it would be easy to use “revisionist history” but noted that many factors were unclear at the time, such as possible death rates and national events like the NCAA Championships being canceled. 

“Here’s two things he (Beshear) did well: He communicated early, and he showed he cared. And after about a month of that, I think all of us were really, really, really sick of it,” Keck said. “He continued to stick to that plan instead of what good leaders do … We had new data come out.” 


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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.