Beshear, Cameron face-off seen as referendum on culture wars in Kentucky

by McKenna Horsley, Kentucky Lantern

Former President Donald Trump helped deliver the Republican nomination for governor to Attorney General Daniel Cameron, but it’s unclear if the Trump effect will help in his efforts to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

Cameron, whose campaign has been built on his record as attorney general and his conservative values, defeated 11 opponents in the primary. Now, he will face one of the most popular governors in America, according to a Morning Consult poll.

The two have a history of disagreeing. On the campaign trail, Cameron often notes that he sued Beshear to reopen churches during the coronavirus pandemic. More recently, Cameron has proposed putting a Kentucky State Police post in Louisville as a way to control violent crime, but Beshear said that idea “shows a lack of confidence” in the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Trump’s endorsement of Cameron was announced early in the race, June 2022. The former president also voiced support for the attorney general in a brief tele-rally the Sunday before the primary election. 

Cameron thanked Trump for his endorsement after the race was called Tuesday. 

“Let me just say, the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky,” Cameron told the crowd gathered at his watch party in Louisville. Trump won the state in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. 

On Wednesday, Trump called Cameron a “star” and gloated on Truth Social that another candidate backed by his potential 2024 GOP presidential opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, came in a “DISTANT third.” Though he didn’t say her name, Trump was referring to Kelly Craft, whom he appointed to ambassadorships to Canada and the United Nations. 

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Trump’s endorsements can help in Republican primaries but hurt candidates in general elections when it comes to swing voters. In the Kentucky Republican primary, Trump supporters could have been divided between three candidates — Trump-backed Cameron; Craft, who emulated Trump’s cultural policies; and Eric Deters, a suspended attorney from Northern Kentucky who captured Trump’s style on the campaign trail and on social media. 

“The one thing Trump’s endorsement may have done is not a positive but a negative in the sense that Cameron previously had been seen as a McConnell protege and Craft wanted to tie Cameron to the McConnell wing of the party, which is unpopular with right wingers,” Voss said. “But Cameron having the Trump endorsement was like armor against attacks related to McConnell.” 

Scott Jennings, a conservative commentator who has worked in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s past campaigns, said Republican presidential hopefuls could show up to support the GOP gubernatorial nominee. 

“Trump would be the biggest, and I think on balance … I think he’s a net positive for if you’re trying to juice Republican turnout,” Jennings said. “One of the things about governor’s races is turnout is low. Primary turnout was low. General election turnout is low. And so, you think about trying to pull out voters who wouldn’t normally pay attention to a governor’s race, yeah, Trump has the capacity to help you do that.

Cameron v. Beshear

The general election will be the first “serious exploration” of what Beshear has accomplished in Frankfort and his policies, Jennings said. He characterized Beshear as a “nonpartisan technocrat who shows up to hand out hugs and water when something bad happens.” 

Heading into the fall, Kentucky Republicans will likely press the governor on culture issues, Jennings said, adding “Beshear is outside of the mainstream where most Kentucky voters are.” Cameron is also likely to excite voters, including some independents, he said. 

“Daniel Cameron is at worst a generic Republican, which is a good thing to be in Kentucky,” Jennings said, “and at best — and I think probably more tilting towards best — he is something more than that. He is a young transformational sort of candidate to our party’s future.” 

I think it’s going to be very close and there are going to be tens of millions of dollars put into the race for both sides. It’s probably going to get quite negative.

– Jonathan Miller, former Democratic state treasurer

Beshear does have an advantage in being the incumbent, Jennings said. But he noted,  incumbents do lose, pointing to former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019 and Democratic Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022.  

Jonathan Miller, a former Democratic state treasurer, said facing Cameron will likely be a heated race for Beshear, but remained optimistic that the governor will get a second term. 

“I think it’s going to be very close and there are going to be tens of millions of dollars put into the race for both sides. It’s probably going to get quite negative,” Miller said. “And ultimately, I think because of the relationship that the governor has established with the people of Kentucky, it’s going to overcome the fact that we are mostly a red state.” 

Voters in Louisville will likely be energized to vote against Cameron because of his work in the Breonna Taylor case, Miller said. In 2020, LMPD officers killed the unarmed Black woman in her apartment. 

Critics of Cameron, who was the special prosecutor for the case, have questioned why his office did not bring murder charges against any officers when later the Department of Justice announced federal charges against four police officers. 

Beshear has faced some criticism of his own, especially from Republican candidates in the primary election, particularly on his coronavirus response and the veto of Senate Bill 150, an omnibus anti-trans bill, earlier this year. 

Voss said that the Republican nominee’s criticisms of Beshear will likely be the same as presented in the primary election. 

In a press call last week, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge said of the criticism of the governor’s COVID-19 response, “bless them if that’s the road they want to go down.” 

“Gov. Beshear has a clear record of showing up when Kentuckians needed him the most,” Elridge said. “So, insofar as COVID is concerned, the governor across the board, regardless of party affiliation, continues to get high marks because he set a standard for care, for compassion and for making decisive decisions that kept people alive.” 

As for the veto of the anti-transgender bill, Eldridge echoed Beshear’s comments of treating others with “dignity and respect.” 

“He has made it a priority for our party to echo those values in how we do our work, how we build our party to see the humanity in everyone and to treat everyone with dignity and respect and, as the governor says, as a child of God, and so we will continue to echo those values through Election Day and beyond.”

Miller said Beshear established a connection with Kentuckians for his responses during the pandemic and natural disasters, so much so that it might sway “even conservative voters who normally vote Republican.” 

“In Kentucky, we really have a personal relationship with our governor,” Miller said. “It’s different from every other elected office.”

The race will likely heat up soon with ads on both sides trying to bring down the other’s approval, Miller added. 

While on opposing sides of the political spectrum, Cameron and Beshear do have some career commonalities. Cameron is in his first term as attorney general as he leads his gubernatorial campaign. Beshear also served one term as attorney general before facing Bevin in 2019

Their law careers also overlapped. Their offices were on the same hallway in Stites & Harbison, a Louisville law firm.  

Will Republicans unite behind Cameron? 

Jennings said the attorney general offers Kentucky Republicans something they didn’t have in the 2019 election — “a unifying top of the ticket” — which is “a huge advantage.”

“One of the main problems with Bevin in ‘19 is there were just a whole bunch of Republicans that didn’t want to vote for him, and guess what? They didn’t.” 

Beshear defeated Bevin by about 5,000 votes in the 2019 general election. 

Jennings pointed out that more Kentucky voters are registered Republican than when Bevin was seeking reelection. Cameron will benefit from the work done in the primary by all of the candidates, Voss said. The contested GOP primary encouraged voters to register and gained their attention. Heading into the primary election, 1,587,478 Kentucky voters were registered Republicans. Democrats had 1,534,606.

And, Jennings said, Cameron has widespread support geographically and in the ideological wings of the party. 

Voss agreed, saying the Republican candidates had very few differences between them despite the numerous negative ads. 

“This primary has been mostly gain for the GOP, despite the fact they’ve attacked each other,” Voss said. 

But Voss and Miller disagreed about whether the attack ads by his GOP rivals would hurt Cameron in the general election.

Voss said the damage would likely not linger but Miller said damage has been done by negative ads. 

“Kelly Craft’s ads were not just seen by Republican primary voters but by general election voters as well, and so I think that that weakens Cameron as a general election candidate,” Miller said. 

Photo: The Kentucky state capitol dome. (The Lexington Times)