Thanks to McConnell, Trump and himself, Cameron looks strong

May 19, 2023 4:50 am

Then President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell shown at the White House in 2017. The two politicians were instrumental in Attorney General Daniel Cameron winning the GOP gubernatorial primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Daniel Cameron’s thumping victory in Tuesday’s hard-fought Republican primary makes him a stronger-than-forecast challenger to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear — not just because he won big, but because of how he got there.

Cameron led in polls from the start, thanks to his name recognition as Kentucky’s attorney general and his national-level status as the first Black Kentuckian elected to statewide office in his own right. His polling lead helped him get the endorsement of Donald Trump — even though he is a protégé of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who tried to read Trump out of the party after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Cameron made much of the Trump endorsement, and rarely mentioned McConnell, explaining to NBC News that he had “to build a coalition that is large enough not only win the May 16 primary but also to beat Andy Beshear” — who had a higher popularity rating among Republicans than McConnell did in one pre-election poll.

So, McConnell didn’t publicly endorse Cameron, but I give the Senate majority leader and his political operatives partial credit for the win.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron speaks during his election party on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Louisville. (Austin Anthony / for the Kentucky Lantern)

Cameron only raised $600,000 for his own campaign, so an essential element of his victory was the super PAC that spent $2.7 million attacking former ambassador Kelly Craft, who had been catching up to him by spending $11 million, a record for a primary.

The PAC got $2.2 million from a nonprofit tied to Leonard Leo, a conservative activist who helped McConnell and Trump remake the Supreme Court and recently broadened his work to other causes. For Cameron, “It helped stabilize his campaign,” McConnell adviser Scott Jennings said on KET election night.

Twice I have asked McConnell, through a spokesman, if he or anyone under his employ or direction raised money for the PAC. Twice the spokesman has not replied.

The financial maneuvers may remain officially mysterious, but it’s clear that Cameron earned the victory by following his mentor’s examples. Like McConnell at key points in his career, Cameron exercised calculated audacity.

Like McConnell always does, Cameron ran a focused and disciplined campaign, with no reluctance to keep repeating himself to hammer home simple, key points...

First, he abandoned the career path McConnell apparently favored for him — re-election this year (something Cameron had publicly pledged to pursue), followed by a bid to succeed McConnell upon the senator’s anticipated retirement in 2026. With a young family, Cameron reportedly liked the prospect of working next door to the governor’s mansion rather than commuting to Washington, and he’s young enough (37) to be governor and then go to the Senate.

Also audaciously, Cameron sought the endorsement of McConnell’s enemy, Trump. That was not an abandonment of McConnell, but a taking of opportunity. McConnell understands that, and he’s also one of the few politicians who rarely takes anything personally. For him, it’s all about winning.

Like McConnell always does, Cameron ran a focused and disciplined campaign, with no reluctance to keep repeating himself to hammer home simple, key points — or to keep repeating non-answers to pointed questions, such as “Was the 2020 election fairly decided?” (We’ll keep asking, as long as Trump is for him.)

Trump’s legal troubles could make him a less effective endorser, but he carried Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, so he’s still a major asset for Cameron.

Cameron built his own asset value by getting almost 48% of the vote in a race with 12 candidates, six of whom qualified for debates, and piling up more than twice as many votes as the second-place finisher, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (who beat expectations and would be a logical running mate for lieutenant governor, a choice Cameron must make by early August).

 In Beshear, Cameron has an opponent who enjoys strong job-approval ratings, thanks largely to his initial handling of the pandemic, and to many voters seems like a nice guy who doesn’t deserve to lose his job. Look for Cameron to argue from hindsight that Beshear’s pandemic restrictions were too strong and too long, to keep waging the culture war with gender and school issues, and to remind voters that Beshear belongs to a party that is more liberal than they are.

The race is the nation’s most important this year, already drawing lots of national money and attention. The election-night headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post had a national focus but different takes; the Times said “Ally of Mitch McConnell wins” and the Post called him “Trump-backed Daniel Cameron.”

With McConnell for him on the inside and Trump for him on the outside, Cameron is a formidable challenger for Beshear — who still seems to have the edge, but maybe not for long.

Addendum:  The most heartening news, from a Republican electorate that apparently thinks by wide margin that Trump’s loss in 2020 was not legitimate, was Secretary of State Michael Adams’ easy win over two election deniers. May it stiffen the resolve of his Republican counterparts around the nation.

This column is republished  from the Northern Kentucky Tribune, a nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism.

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Al Cross
Al Cross

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.