LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s crowded Republican primary campaign for governor comes to a close Tuesday, concluding a fierce contest between two rivals tied to former President Donald Trump who topped the race. Only one of the 12 contenders will remain standing to challenge the popular Democratic governor of the red-leaning state.
Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft are considered frontrunners for the GOP nomination. Although Craft was nominated to her position by Trump, it was Cameron who won the former president’s coveted endorsement early in the campaign.
Whoever gets the most votes in Tuesday’s primary will be the GOP nominee because there is no second-round rule.
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Incumbent Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who is seeking re-election to a second term, awaits the winner of the GOP primary in what is sure to be a tumultuous general election bid. The November race, one of the few major nationwide contests in an off-year election, will be closely watched for signs of conservative voter sentiment.
The election will also test the strength of a much-loved Democratic governor in a Republican-dominated state, a year before national elections determine control of the White House and Congress. Beshear has received consistently high voter approval ratings throughout a crisis-filled term and faces nominal opposition in his party’s primary on Tuesday.
The crowded GOP primary includes other officials from across the state – Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Auditor Mike Harmon – as well as Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and retired lawyer Eric Deters. But with few political differences between them, the GOP contest focused on competition between Cameron and Craft.
Craft, who also served as an ambassador to Canada during Trump’s presidency, has a clear fundraising advantage, countering her lack of experience in elected office by saturating the air with months of TV ads funded by the tremendous fortune of his family.
Cameron, meanwhile, touted his record of going to court to challenge the incumbent governor’s pandemic-era policies. He is the state’s first black attorney general and would become the state’s first black governor if elected.
Trump held a virtual rally Sunday night in support of Cameron, while Craft campaigned alongside Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Saturday as rivals hoped for a belated momentum.
The main battle was heated. A pro-Craft group painted Cameron as an ‘establishment teddy bear’ saying he wasn’t tough enough as attorney general, while a pro-Cameron group backtracked attacking the record de Craft as an ambassador.
Despite Beshear’s advantages as an incumbent, Republicans see a great opportunity to win back the governorship in a state they’ve come to dominate in recent years. Republicans maintain supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and hold all state offices except governor and lieutenant governor. They now hold a statewide registration advantage over the Democrats, and the GOP holds all but one of Kentucky’s congressional seats.
Democrats have reveled in Republican infighting as they prepare to take on Beshear, who won the governorship in 2019 by ousting then-Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. GOP watchers believe Beshear will face a more formidable challenge against a candidate without the political baggage that Bevin brought into the race with his pugilist style of government.
Beshear’s tenure has been marked by a series of tragedies – the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and a mass shooting that killed one of his closest friends. He’s been at the forefront through it all, comfortably taking on the role of the state’s chief comforter and gaining supporters among people who didn’t support him the first time around. Beshear also presided over record economic growth and will draw on his family’s strong political brand — his father, Steve Beshear, is a two-term former governor of Kentucky.
The gubernatorial campaign is leading the primary races for other constitutional offices in Kentucky, with competitive contests on the GOP side. Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, who successfully lobbied for expanded voter access, faces two opponents in his bid to nominate his party for a second term. Two-term state treasurer Allison Ball is seeking the Republican nomination for state auditor. The GOP also contested the primaries for state treasurer and commissioner of agriculture.
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