After fierce primary battle, can Kentucky Republicans rally behind their governor nominee? 

KET debate underscored frontrunners’ digs

By: - May 2, 2023 2:55 pm

A screen in a KET viewing room shows Republican governor candidates Daniel Cameron, left, and Kelly Craft during a recent debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Two weeks away from Kentucky’s primary election, some Republicans are looking toward a path for unity in November. 

Monday night’s KET debate showcased tensions between the top two Republican governor candidates — Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft. It was the first time the two appeared together in a debate this election season. 

Their arguments, which often dominated the discussion, focused on questions both camps have previously raised. Cameron questioned Craft over a $1.5 million donation from her coal executive husband Joe Craft to a PAC supporting her. Craft asked Cameron about his campaign and a PAC backing him receiving donations from Pace-O-Matic and its executives. The company is suing the state to block the new ban on its cash-paying skill game machines. The attorney general’s office is defending the law although Cameron recused himself from the case.

Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft addresses media after the KET debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

On Monday, Craft’s campaign put forth a new ad denouncing her political opponents as career politicians while photos of Cameron and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are shown.  

Craft and her husband, who is often described as a billionaire, have donated generously to Republicans in the past, and Reuters reported  that McConnell recommended Craft as ambassador to Canada to former President Donald Trump. After Monday’s debate, she told reporters that while she and her husband have supported Republicans at the federal and state levels, “I’m not a career politician.” 

Previously, the attorney general told reporters at a Jeffersontown campaign stop that Craft thought she would get Trump’s endorsement, but when Cameron got it, “she’s been in free fall ever since.”

“Kelly, again, has spent $10 million attacking me,” Cameron said Monday night. “When I’m the nominee, I just hope she’ll be willing to part with some more of that money to help me beat Andy Beshear in November.”

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, left, speaks to reporters with his wife, Makenze, after the KET debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

The eventual Republican nominee will have to face Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in the fall. An April Morning Consult poll showed he is one of the most popular governors in the country. 

Before the debate, Republican Party of Kentucky Chair Mac Brown released a statement calling for unity after the primary election in a couple of weeks. He invited gubernatorial candidates to attend a “post-primary unity event.” 

“Once our nomination process is concluded, the Republican Party stands ready to lead Kentucky forward, and with the momentum of this voter registration advantage behind us, we are confident that we can win in November,” Brown said. 

After the debate, Cameron told reporters that Kentucky Republicans could “absolutely” unite behind whomever is their eventual nominee. 

Former Northern Kentucky Attorney Eric Deters talks to reporters after Monday’s KET debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

“Eric Deters has already invited me to Freedom Fest,” the attorney general quipped, referring to the suspended Northern Kentucky attorney’s annual gathering for conservatives and Libertarians that last year featured Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, sons of the former president. 

After a Lexington campaign stop last week, Craft said in response to a question about the tenor of the campaigns that she was “speaking truth and providing facts.” 

“The reason that I’m doing this is because I want Kentuckians to know that I am the one, the only one that can lead the state. My campaign has been based upon issues that I know very well,” Craft said last week, adding that those issues include education and fighting drug addiction. 

During Monday’s debate, Deters, an enthusiastic Trump supporter and self-described “legal outlaw,”  defended Cameron or criticized all of the candidates on the stage with pointed digs at Craft. His criticisms of her continued when speaking with reporters afterwards. He did add that he thought the debate was “pretty civil” because there wasn’t name calling.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles talks with media following the KET debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

“Kentuckians want fighters. They don’t want the political gobbly gook of what people say and they go, ‘Well, da de da, the discourse.’ We’re trying to become governor of Kentucky,” Deters said. “And the reality of it, the people that I’m representing want me to fight for them and what they believe in.”

Two other candidates on stage, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, took advantage of the night to talk about their policy stances. In response to reporters’ questions on the campaign trail about negative ads, Quarles typically turns to focusing on his ideas for Kentucky. In his first TV ad, Keck turns off a television running Cameron and Craft ads. 

“You open your mailbox and you see somebody get torn to shreds. You get on your TV and you see the same thing. We’re talking about ideas,” Keck said following

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck takes questions from journalists after the KET debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Monday’s debate. “We’re talking about our track record, and we’ve got a vision that can transform the state that we all love. I’m going to continue to talk about those things. And if I need to tear somebody else down to get ahead, then you know, perhaps I won’t be the guy, but that’s not my style.” 

Quarles told reporters he brought to the debate a “temperament” Kentucky needs in its next governor.

“It’s important that Republicans nominate a candidate who can unite the party,” he said. “And so, there’s no problem with having disagreements on issues and policies and voting records, etc., but it’s important that if we are going to defeat Andy Beshear, we need to nominate somebody who wants to help lift other people up and unite the party after May 16.”

Twelve Republicans will be on the ballot in the gubernatorial race. 

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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.