Few differences emerge among top Republicans in first debate of Kentucky governor’s race

Cameron, Harmon, Keck, Quarles talk about their platforms. Craft couldn’t make it.

By McKenna Horsley, Kentucky Lantern

LOUISVILLE —  Four top Republican governor candidates agreed on school choice and lowering the state income tax, but differed on abortion and legalizing medical marijuana Tuesday night. 

The debate at The Henry Clay in Louisville was the first ahead of the May 16 primary election. 

Five of the 12 Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for governor were invited, but only four agreed to participate: Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Kentucky Auditor Mike Harmon, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. 

Conspicuously absent was former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, who chose not to attend.

 Mike Harmon answers questions after the Louisville GOP debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Republicans are seeking to replace incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who according to polling, is one of the most popular governors in the country. A January statewide poll from the Mason-Dixon Polling Strategy firm found that Beshear had a 61% approval rating and the governor polled ahead of Cameron, Harmon, Quarles and former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft in potential match-ups. 

The Jefferson County Republican Party hosted the debate  and partnered with Spectrum News to broadcast the event statewide. Anchor Mario Anderson moderated. Other upcoming debates include one hosted by Kentucky Sports Radio on April 19 and another by Kentucky Educational Television on May 1. 

Here are some of the topics discussed Tuesday night. 


When it comes to getting more teachers into the classroom, Harmon praised efforts by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to raise teacher salaries and tie them to school choice. 

Quarles was supportive of the General Assembly’s funding of public education and added that he would like to see continued support for funding teacher pensions, as well as increasing the SEEK, or Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, formula. 

 Ryan Quarles speaks with journalists following the debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Last week, Cameron unveiled his plans for Kentucky’s education framework, which includes “keep the far-left from indoctrinating our students” and raising the starting pay of teachers. He reiterated his plans in the debate, adding that he wants appointees to the state board of education that understand the importance of parents’ involvement in education. 

Keck warned against demonizing teachers and casting a shadow over public education. He added that he does support school choice. In a lightning round later, all four candidates said they support charter schools. 

Health care 

On the issue of abortion and possible exceptions to Kentucky’s now almost-total ban on the procedure, Cameron, Quarles and Harmon supported the current law. Keck differed, saying he supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal anomalies. 

He later expanded on his views with reporters, citing his experience as a father of three girls. He reiterated that he is pro-life and would not encourage people to seek abortions but an absolute ban is a “slippery slope.” 

“When it comes to violent crime, you know, I think we have to give consideration to the woman that was affected. …  These decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, and I think we have to understand that they’re all not perfectly black and white,” Keck said.

The candidates were also asked if they supported legalizing medical marijuana. Quarles had previously said he supports legalizing medical marijuana and vowed to work with the legislature to pass a measure doing that within his first year as governor. He echoed those comments Tuesday. 

 Alan Keck answers questions after the debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Keck said he came out supporting the legalization of medical marijuana months ago and it was past time for Kentucky to do so. Kentucky law enforcement officials should have a seat at the table during discussions, Cameron said. He added that he would be supportive of a responsible framework. 

Harmon said he is not fully behind medical marijuana but he would remain open to discussion. 

Transgender care

Bills that would affect Kentucky’s LGBTQ community are moving through the current Kentucky legislative session. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors

Keck, Hamron and Cameron all said that children should not be allowed to make decisions about surgeries until they are of age. Quarles said parental consent is already needed to perform surgeries on minors. 


 Daniel Cameron speaks to reporters. His wife, Makenze is with him. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Anderson, the moderator, asked the candidates about their support of House Bill 1, a Republican priority in this session that will lower the state income tax by a half-percent for the second consecutive year. Beshear has signed it into law. All of the candidates said they were supportive of lowering the state income tax. Both Quarles and Cameron said they would eventually like to see it lowered to 0%.

What Democrats expected

Ahead of Tuesday night’s debate, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge told reporters no Republican candidates have given “any compelling reason to replace one of the most popular governors in our country.” 

Elridge added that Democrats were “looking forward to seeing what other of the Beshear administration’s popular policies they’ll get on board with tonight” and referenced recent policy announcements from Cameron on supporting raising teacher pay and from Quarles on backing legalizing medical marijuana and returning coal severance tax revenues to their respective counties. 

Quarles said he differs from Beshear on medical marijuana because he includes Kentucky farmers in his plans. 

“I think in fact, his executive orders have muddied the water. I’ve talked to a lot of nurses, I’ve talked to a lot of health care providers, and I’ve talked to people that would hope to benefit from this who are now even more confused than they were before,” Quarles told reporters after the debate. “Let’s do it the right way. Let’s do it legal. Let’s pass a bill through the Kentucky General Assembly.” 

Who was missing? 

One top Republican candidate was notably absent from Tuesday night’s debate — former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft.

 Kelly Craft

At a February campaign stop on her Kitchen Table Tour in Louisville, she told a Kentucky Lantern reporter she would be traveling across Kentucky “sitting at boardroom tables, kitchen tables, any table that I can find.” Before that, the Jefferson County Republican Party tweeted an event link for the debate that said her invitation acceptance was pending. 

Elridge said Tuesday afternoon it was “no surprise that Kelly Craft will be missing in action once again.” Not going to the debate makes it appear that she is “not up for the job,” he continued. 

“If she cannot take on Republican opponents in this race, how can Republican voters or the people of Kentucky take her seriously when she proclaims that she is the only candidate who is strong enough to take on China?” Elridge said. “It seems to me that if you cannot take on Alan Keck or Mike Harmon, China is probably not scared of you.” 

In his opening remarks, Keck thanked the other candidates for their presence, saying they “understood the importance of being here.” 

The five candidates who were invited to debate are the leaders in fundraising as of the most recent campaign finance reports which were filed in January.

What’s ahead? 

With only weeks ahead of the primary election, things are expected to heat up a bit. Before this week’s debate, an unauthorized campaign committee backing Craft, Commonwealth PAC, launched a negative TV ad against Cameron for more than $600,000 in advertising expenses, both the Louisville Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. 

The ad says the attorney general is “no strong Kentucky conservative” and criticizes him for not joining a lawsuit with other states’ Republican attorney generals against the Biden administration for a policy change on the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The ad also likens Cameron to a “soft establishment teddy bear.” 

In a Monday statement, Cameron said it’s “flattering” to be attacked so early on in the election “because it shows the strength of our lead, and also lays bare the fact that my opponents know they can’t win on their own merits.” 

Minutes later, Cameron tweeted a photo of a teddy bear wearing an “I Heart Cameron” shirt.  

After the debate Tuesday, Cameron said if people want to call him a teddy bear, that’s their choice, but he’s “been fighting daily” Biden’s border policies. 

“We feel good about where we stand in the polls right now and feel good about the vision and the message that we’re able to share,” Cameron said. “As attorney general, what we’ve done over these last three years, we’re going to continue to allow that to stand.” 

Harmon told reporters Craft’s attack ad was “unfortunate” because, while the Republican candidates will have their differences ahead of the primary, they must come together after it to defeat Beshear in the fall. 

“I believe that I’m going to be the one to come out of this primary, but if I’m not, I’m going to be first in line — first in line — for whoever the Republican nominee is,” Harmon said. 

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

Top image:  Counter clockwise from top left: Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, State Auditor Mike Harmon and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (Kentucky Lantern)