Cameron bests crowded GOP field to be gubernatorial nominee; will face Beshear in November

By: and - May 16, 2023 7:37 pm

Attorney General Daniel Cameron on a campaign stop Friday in Frankfort. The AP called Tuesday's GOP primary for Cameron. He will face Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in November. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Boosted by an endorsement from former president Donald Trump, Attorney General Daniel Cameron beat back challenges from GOP mega-donor Kelly Craft and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles on Tuesday to win the GOP nomination for governor.

The attorney general, who was elected to his role in 2019 and has been heralded as a rising GOP star, will face incumbent Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear, one of the most popular governors in the country

The Associated Press called the Republican primary race around 7:15 p.m. The AP called for Beshear around 7 p.m. in his primary. In unofficial results Tuesday evening, Cameron had 48% of the vote, Quarles 22% and Craft 17% with all but one of the state’s 120 counties reporting.

“The American dream is alive and well because here in Kentucky, you aren’t judged by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character,” Cameron said, echoing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his victory speech in Louisville. “Anyone who looks like me, know that you can achieve anything. Know that in this country and in Kentucky, all that matters are your values.”

Cameron also took ample time to attack his future opponent, saying that Beshear “wants you to believe that dream doesn’t exist anymore. 

“The governor during this election will try to take credit for things done by a Republican legislature. But no amount of window dressing will absolve him of his actual record.”

Cameron’s campaign reflected his Christian faith and conservative values. At stops, he often discussed the support of his family, including his wife, Makenze, and their young son, Theodore.

A protege of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Cameron did not mention the Kentucky senator during campaign stops and rather focused on his endorsement by Trump, which was announced last year long before the primary.

The attorney general highlighted the support during debates, in ads and on the campaign trail. During a brief Sunday tele-rally, Trump encouraged voters to support Cameron.  

“(Cameron)’s a great guy. Again, I’ve known him right from the beginning of his career,” Trump said. “I’ve been with him all the way and now he’s doing this and I have no doubt he’s gonna be a fantastic governor.”

Throughout the primary election season, Cameron has continued to be supportive of the former president, who is seeking reelection, despite Trump’s indictment by a grand jury on charges stemming from payments made to quiet claims of an extramarital affair and, more recently, Trump being found liable by a jury for sexually abusing writer E. Jean Caroll in the 1990s, but not her alleged rape. 

During a Friday campaign stop in Frankfort, Cameron told reporters after being asked if the recent verdict changed his mind that he continued to appreciate Trump’s endorsement.

At Cameron’s election night watch party in Louisville Tuesday evening, Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, said he believed Cameron did benefit at least in part by Trump’s endorsement. 

“He’s really somebody that I think the Republicans and the rest of Kentucky’s gonna get behind, big time,” Bratcher said. “I think it’s going to be easy to have everybody get behind Daniel, and let’s move forward.”

In stops across the state and in debates, Cameron touted his record in Frankfort and pointed to his defense of the state’s near-total abortion bans in court and winning lawsuits against Beshear to reopen churches during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Three independent polls released between late January and Sunday showed Cameron had a consistent lead over his 11 opponents in the primary election — including Craft, a former United Nations Ambassador, and Quarles. 

Doesn’t view his campaign as ‘ground-breaking’ 

Cameron’s official bio says he is the first African American independently elected to statewide office in Kentucky’s history. 

Sen. Donald Douglas, R-Nicholasville, is the only Black Republican lawmaker in the state legislature and a supporter of Cameron. When asked about the potential for Cameron to be Kentucky’s first Black governor, Douglas said he believes Cameron doesn’t view his gubernatorial campaign as “ground-breaking.” 

“I understand some of the shoes that he’s kind of looking at,” Douglas said. “No one likes that feeling of not being accepted and sometimes we just have to walk through that door. And sometimes when we walk through the door, we find out there isn’t the resistance that we thought was really going to be there.”

Cameron is a graduate of John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown and later attended the University of Louisville and graduated from Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. He and his family live in Louisville. 

Cameron did not take questions from the press after his speech, leaving the conference room in Louisville with campaign staff.

Quarles calls on Republicans to unite behind Cameron

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Quarles speaks to the crowd gathered at his election night party on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, at Embassy Suites by Hilton Lexington/UK Coldstream in Lexington. After polling third for most of the campaign, the agriculture commissioner appeared to have placed a distant second in the race. Photo by Carter Skaggs | Kentucky Lantern

Quarles, the agriculture commissioner, said in a speech to supporters in Lexington that he had congratulated Cameron on his victory and mentioned that Republicans’ top target should be defeating Beshear this fall.

“My message to the other victors tonight who will be representing the Republican Party as a slate — we must all unite,” he said. “We must come together after tonight because if we are going to defeat Beshear, [we have to all] come together.”

“As a farmer, you need both rain and sunshine. And today we got a little bit of rain. And when I look back and reflect, the Bible teaches us that rain is about renewal. It is about washing off the old and considering what’s next in life. And today’s rain may brighten our future.”

Quarles appears to have landed in a distant second place in the gubernatorial primary after having consistently polled in third place behind Cameron and Craft before the election. He had hoped to flex a grassroots, rural network of more than 230 endorsements from state lawmakers, local judge-executives and other local elected officials to lead him to victory.

Unlike the campaigns of Cameron and Craft who frequently attacked each other during the primary, the two-term agriculture commissioner instead rebuked such negative advertising during his campaign, choosing to focus on his connections to rural Kentucky. He said to reporters after his speech that his mother raised him “to be a gentleman.”

“We knew that this was gonna be a crowded primary, so I wanted to help set the example for [how primaries] should be conducted, especially as the Republican Party continues to grow,” Quarles said.

Quarles said he doesn’t know what his next steps will be after the campaign and that Cameron hasn’t asked him to be his running mate.

Craft says she is disappointed with the results

Republican candidate Kelly Craft greets guests at her election night party on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, at The Campbell House in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Abbey Cutrer | Kentucky Lantern

Craft addressed the crowd of supporters gathered at her election night party at the Campbell House in Lexington. While she expressed her disappointment with the results, she thanked those who worked on her campaign, her family and her running mate, Sen. Max Wise. 

Her campaign said she would not take questions from the press after she gave her remarks.  

Craft made personal loans of almost $9.3 million to her campaign, which was largely self-financed. Her husband, coal executive Joe Craft, also donated $1.5 million via a trust to a PAC supporting her, but the candidate has since denied coordination

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said that the importance of campaign cash is often exaggerated because many see an obvious pattern — that candidates with the most money win elections. However, many campaign donors are “instrumental givers” seeking to improve their access to the eventual winner they expect. 

“The reason the winning candidate usually has the most money is the same reason why winning horses usually attract a lot of bets: The people tossing in their money have an incentive to get it right, and more often than not they do,” Voss said. “Self-financed candidates break the pattern because that money does not chase likely success. If you want to see the true impact of money, self-financed candidates reveal the limits of what money alone can achieve. 

Scott Jennings, a conservative commentator who has worked in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s past campaigns said Cameron “entered the race with something money can’t buy — an earned reputation among republicans that he’s a conservative fighter. He survived a national liberal onslaught and built up enormous goodwill among Republicans.”

Craft did not mention Cameron by name in her remarks, but made a call to Republicans to unify against Beshear in the fall. 

“While I’m disappointed in tonight’s results, we must now come together, united as one Republican Party, to defeat Andy Beshear in November,” she said. 

Wise thanked Craft for the opportunity to join her campaign and praised her work ethic throughout the race. 

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for our family to get to experience things across the Commonwealth of Kentucky that many families would have only dreamed of being a part of,” he told the crowd. 

Craft said she expected to be attacked by Democrats in her campaign “but never in a million years” thought attacks would come from other Republicans. 

Craft’s and Cameron’s campaigns, as well as PACs supporting them often attacked each other in ads. A height of the turmoil was the KET debate, which was the only debate where the two shared a stage. 

Craft gained high-profile Republican endorsements throughout the race, including final hour support from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — a 2024 presidential primary opponent of Trump, who backed Cameron early in the race. Craft often pointed out that Trump endorsed the attorney general before she got in the race. 

Other notable candidates

Suspended Northern Kentucky Attorney Eric Deters, who gained a following in the race for his firebrand comments, said he would support Cameron and reached out to him Tuesday night, according to LINK nky

State Auditor Mike Harmon, who appeared alongside other candidates in statewide debates, said in a video he posted to social media that while he did not see the results he was hoping for, he praised God for being with him in his campaign. He thanked his supporters as well as other candidates. He voiced support for Cameron in the general election.

“Finally, I want to congratulate Daniel Cameron. We appreciate you so much, you and Makenze,” Harmon said.

Mariah Kendell contributed to this report.


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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.

Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.