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Kentucky Republicans square off for the chance to take on Governor Beshear in November

Several high-profile candidates, including Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, headline the May 2023 gubernatorial primary in the Bluegrass State.

(CN) — Vitriolic campaign ads and an insistence on stopping the "woke agenda" of Democrats have defined the gubernatorial primary race in Kentucky this spring, as GOP candidates jockey into position before the May 16 election.

Commonwealth Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Kelly Craft, who held the position of U.S. ambassador during the Trump administration — first to Canada and then to the United Nations — stole the spotlight in the early stages of the race, while Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles has used a steady, grassroots campaign to boost his numbers and provide a real challenge to the frontrunners.

Courthouse News spoke about the Republican candidates with University of Kentucky Associate Professor of Political Science Steve Voss, who was quick to caution against labeling the primary a two-horse race between Cameron and Craft.

Voss emphasized that Quarles has quietly amassed a good amount of campaign capital but has "kept his powder dry" in the early stages of the race.

"If he chooses to move that money into the race, especially after Cameron and Craft have been the main two fighting, then we could see him rise," he said.

Voss pointed out the current situation is reminiscent of Kentucky's 2015 gubernatorial campaign cycle, in which Matt Bevin used conflicts between other candidates to secure the nomination and eventually win the governorship.

"The reason I'm not writing him off," Voss continued, "is that Quarles has been running an 'old school' Kentucky campaign focused on reaching voters not primarily through the airwaves ... but instead through their local leaders and getting the endorsements of the courthouse or the city hall politicians."

Quarles' Twitter feed is indicative of the type of race Voss talked about, with pictures of the agriculture commissioner at stockyards, clay target shooting events, and even "drive your tractor to school day" in Franklin County.

Cameron and Craft, on the other hand, have traded barbs about each other's willingness to take on the agenda of Democratic Governor Andy Beshear and are seemingly locked in a battle to be viewed as the most "anti-woke" candidate.

Craft in particular has used her campaign to rail against the "woke" policies of incumbent Beshear and Democrats in Washington. She briefly went viral for an April ad that depicted a classroom taken over by ultraliberal teachers who force a student to recite her pronouns.

"We have Kelly Craft basically defining herself as a 'culture warrior,'" Voss said. "We've got Cameron making the right noises, but sort of saying, 'I'm the less crazy, more effective culture warrior,' and we have Quarles [saying], 'I'll take all the right positions on the culture war, but I really don't want to talk about that.'"

Most recently, Craft released a campaign ad on April 24 that attacked Cameron for his failure to oppose a report from the Department of Justice that found the Louisville Police Department committed a litany of civil rights abuses against Black residents.

Cameron responded and called the ad a "flat out lie" used by Craft in an effort to make up ground in the polls, but the former legal counsel for Senator Mitch McConnell hasn't been afraid to use attack ads himself.

In an April 18 ad, Cameron called Craft "desperate" and pointed out that even though she worked in his administration, former President Donald Trump chose to endorse Cameron in the Kentucky governor's race.

One important component to securing a victory in the primary, according to Voss, is being able to attract votes not only from Kentuckians eager to fight the culture war, but also those politically active citizens who care about concrete issues.

"We have both types of voters," he said. "Yeah, you have those people who are concerned about the 'woke agenda,' and they may or may not vote, but the older, Republican-leaning [individuals] who vote out of a sense of duty and aren't ideological like that, tend to be mobilized by their local political networks."

Alan Keck, the 38-year-old mayor of Somerset, is a longshot candidate who has steered clear of the culture war for the most part and instead focused on substantive issues that affect nearly all Kentuckians.

His popularity increased following several solid debate performances, where Voss says he performs better than nearly every other Republican, and Keck has repeatedly told voters Kentucky "needs a CEO" as its next leader.

Keck's chances against Cameron, Craft, and Quarles are slim, but Voss said he believes the southern Kentucky native might use this election cycle to increase his name recognition for a future congressional campaign.

Given his moderate stances on most issues, Voss believes it's also possible Keck could secure endorsements from major newspapers around the commonwealth, which would boost his odds, although the UK professor sees Quarles as a distinct possibility for those endorsements as well.

"The major newspapers haven't endorsed in the contest yet, and if they do, I think they've got two realistic possibilities: Keck, the most-moderate candidate, or Quarles, the most-moderate candidate of the main three," Voss said.

"It's tempting to dismiss a newspaper endorsement as unimportant, especially given that those papers primarily serve a Democratic and urban audience," he continued, "but endorsements matter more in a primary because voters cannot use party as a shortcut, and a whole lot of Republicans actually live in those Democratic territories. The number of Republican votes in and around Louisville is a big part of the primary vote."

As the two most high-profile candidates continue to slog it out with attack ads against both each other and incumbent Beshear, it might be important for Republicans to consider which candidate's message will give their party the best shot at winning the governorship in November.

"Here's what we do know as political scientists," Voss said. "It's possible Craft's message would work against Governor Beshear, [but] I wouldn't count on that because there is some weariness with the very conservative orientation of the state's Republican Party. A lot of the Republican voters aren't that conservative."

Voss reiterated his belief that Quarles would likely stand the best chance against Beshear in the general election, but pointed out Craft could raise a significant amount of campaign capital if she wins the nomination.

Courthouse News will have live coverage of primary election results on Tuesday, May 16.

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