Ahead of today’s primary elections, KET’s Kentucky Tonight assembled a panel of political experts to discuss key races on the ballot and how the outcomes could impact the general election this fall.
The guests were Jonathan Miller, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, and a former Democratic Kentucky Treasurer; Mike Ward, Democratic political consultant and former Congressman from Kentucky’s 3rd district; Tres Watson, Republican political consultant and founder of Capitol Reins PR; and Amy Wickliffe, Republican strategist and partner with McCarthy Strategic Solutions government relations firm.
Republican Primary for Governor
A dozen Republican contenders are vying for the nomination for governor in what has turned out to be one of the most expensive primary races in state history. Polling has current Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron with a double-digit lead over his nearest rivals: former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft, and current state Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles. Cameron and Craft have peppered the airwaves with various attacks against the other, while promoting their own accomplishments and conservative values.
Wickliffe says she expects Cameron to win, but she is also curious to see how well Craft turns out voters in western Kentucky, where she is backed by 1st district Congressman James Comer. She says joint campaign appearances by Craft and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last weekend along with a late endorsement from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could also boost Craft’s numbers.
Another factor at play for Cameron, according to Wickliffe, is how well former attorney Eric Deters performs with voters in his native northern Kentucky. And then there’s the weather. With storms forecast for today, Wickliffe says that could drive turnout even lower than the predicted 10 percent of eligible voters.
“When you have historically low turnout, it’s going to come down to whose base is going to actually go to the polls,” says Wickliffe.
Though he’s unlikely to win, Deters could have an impact on who does emerge victorious, according to Watson. He says Deters, who has run as anti-establishment candidate fully supporting former President Donald Trump, could pull anywhere between 8 and 14 percent of the final vote. Watson says another X factor is recent voter registration trends in the commonwealth. The GOP now holds a slight lead in registrations, and Watson wants to see if communities that once had strong Democratic turnout maintain similar levels of participation now that many of those voters have switched to the Republican Party.
Even though voters may be focused on so-called kitchen table issues, the campaigns have targeted social issues like school policies on sex education and transgender youth. Watson says the candidates are hitting topics they believe will drive their voters to the polls.
“Primaries are guided a lot by the base voters because you can talk all you want (but) unless you win, you’re just a guy on a mountain yelling,” says Watson. “So you’ve got to win... You’ve got to give the people who are going to show up to vote what they want to hear.”
The fight for Kentucky’s strong base of supporters for former President Trump has pushed the Republican gubernatorial field even farther to the right, according to Miller. That includes promises by the leading candidates to fire Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass for being, as they contend, too “woke.”
That criticism of Glass may excite primary voters, but Miller says it may also turn off general election voters who are more interested in student academic performance and teacher pay. While Cameron and Craft have gained more of the headlines, Miller says Quarles has focused on discussing local issues and building strong grassroots support.
“Ryan Quarles has been running a campaign that’s more suited to the general election,” says Miller. “He perhaps would, among those folks, be the strongest general election candidate but I don’t think that’s what this primary base wanted.”
Regardless of who secures the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Ward says the big winner will be incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear. He says the Democrat, who has only token opposition, will not have to unite his party or cater to a small faction of it to win votes in the fall campaign. But the Republican victor, he says will face an uphill battle
“You’ll end up with a Republican nominee who is supported in the election by what turns out to be about 5 to 8 percent of all the Republicans in the state,” says Ward. “That’s not the way to go into November.”
Some pundits have wondered whether the intense fight between Craft and Cameron could allow Quarles or another Republican to sneak through to victory. Ward says that tactic worked for Wallace Wilkinson, who won the Democratic nomination in 1987, and Matt Bevin, who received the GOP nod in 2015. But unlike those candidates, Ward says Quarles doesn’t have the financial resources to win a split-ticket race.
Several other statewide races have generated more interest than expected. Incumbent Secretary of State Michael Adams faces two primary challengers: Stephen Knipper of Independence and Allen Maricle of Lebanon Junction.
Adams has run on his accomplishments to increase the number of days of in-person voting, improve access to absentee ballots, and tighten election security. Wickliffe says that race comes down to the achievements of Adams versus the conspiracy theories touted by the other candidates.
Ward says if Adams loses, that will improve the chances for Buddy Wheatley in November. The former state representative from Covington is running unopposed in the Democratic primary for Secretary of State.
The Republican primary for state Treasurer is a hotly contested three-way race among Lexington businessman Andrew Cooperrider, Garrard County Attorney Mark Metcalf, and former Deputy Treasurer O.J. Oleka.
Wickliffe says Oleka has experience doing the job under outgoing Treasurer Allison Ball, but she says Metcalfe has better name recognition thanks to being active in Republican state politics for decades. Watson says if there’s an upset in this race, it could go to Metcalfe.
In the contest for Commissioner of Agriculture, Ward says economic development consultant Sierra Enlow of Hodgenville should easily defeat sustainability advocate Mikael Malone of Winchester.
The Republican primary for commissioner has seen attacks and counterattacks between current state Rep. Richard Heath of Mayfield and former state Rep. Jonathan Shell of Lancaster.
Wickliffe says Shell had an early edge in the race thanks to his prolific fundraising skills. But she says Heath, who narrowly lost the GOP primary for commissioner in 2015, shouldn’t be counted out. Watson says he thinks Shell will win the race based on his higher name recognition among party faithful.
Impacts on the Fall Campaign
Regardless of who wins the Republican nomination for governor, Miller and Ward say Andy Beshear should be well positioned for reelection in November. Ward says with the GOP swinging so far to the right, that clears a path for Beshear to run in the political center.
Miller says Kentuckians appreciate how Beshear has unified the state through the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple natural disasters. Even when they disagree with his policies, Miller says voters see Beshear as a person of faith and compassion.
“This is not a federal race where people are more focused on the (political) party,” says Miller. “They’re focused on a governor that they can personally identify with.”
Voters do want a more connection with their governors, according to Wickliffe and Watson, but they say Kentuckians also expect a leader who can deliver. Wickliffe says people want to like their governor, but when they don’t, they are willing to vote that person out of office, which she says was the case with former Gov. Bevin.
Watson acknowledges Beshear has high approval ratings now, but he contends that will change once the Democrat enters the fall campaign and faces a barrage of political ads criticizing his leadership.
“There’s a real story to be written about unemployment insurance, the bulldozing and removal of debris from houses in east Kentucky, the juvenile justice system,” says Watson. “There’s one string that rolls through all of it, which is Andy Beshear is a weak leader.”
Renee Shaw will host live results and candidate speeches starting at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on KET. Al Cross, Bob Babbage, Trey Grayson, Morgan Eaves and Scott Jennings will provide analysis.