May 29, 2023

Daniel Cameron won the Republican primary for Kentucky governor on Tuesday, becoming the first major-party Black nominee for governor in the state’s history and setting up a November showdown with Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear.

Cameron, the state’s attorney general who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, emerged victorious from a 12-candidate field that included Kelly Craft, who served as United Nations ambassador in the Trump administration, and state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Beshear easily dispatched two under-the-radar Democratic challengers in his own primary.

Cameron, the state’s first Black attorney general, would be the state’s first Black governor if elected.

Daniel Cameron
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. July 29, 2022.

Silas Walker/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The race now shifts to the general election, which will be one of November’s most closely watched contests and could provide clues heading into next year’s presidential race. Beshear, a popular Democratic governor, will face a tough reelection bid in a Republican-dominated state after a first term marked by a series of tragedies — the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and a mass shooting last month in Louisville that killed five people, including one of his closest friends.

The fall matchup between Beshear and Cameron conjures parallels from the state’s last governor’s race but with a reversal of roles for the governor. In 2019, Beshear used the attorney general’s office as a springboard to the governorship. During his single term as attorney general, Beshear challenged a series of executive actions by then-governor, Republican Matt Bevin. Beshear narrowly defeated Bevin in a race that revolved around Bevin’s combative personality.

Turnout was light in many locations as rain fell across much of the state during part of the day, the secretary of state’s office said. Storm warnings were issued in some areas but there were no reports of voting disruptions. Election officials hoped for an upswing in turnout after the storms passed.

Cameron succeeded Beshear in the attorney general’s office, and the Republican turned the tables on Beshear, mounting numerous legal challenges against state and national Democratic policies that endeared him to conservatives. Cameron led the successful challenge that essentially halted the governor’s COVID-era restrictions, which Cameron said amounted to executive overreach. Beshear says that his actions saved lives and that he leaned heavily on guidance from Trump’s coronavirus task force.

A former aide to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, Cameron has risen through the political ranks to become one of the most prominent Black Republicans in the country.

The current era of divided government in Kentucky has led to a series of policy disputes between Beshear and Republican lawmakers, who overrode multiple Beshear vetoes to put their stamp on state policies.

If Beshear follows his campaign formula from 2019, he will avoid talking about Trump or dwelling on polarizing national issues that could risk further energizing his opponent’s conservative base.

He is also expected to draw on his family’s strong political brand — his father, Steve Beshear, is a former two-term Kentucky governor — and lean into his role of leading through adversity after a multitude of crises during his first term.

The global pandemic killed more than 18,000 Kentuckians. An outbreak of tornadoes in late 2021 killed scores of people in western Kentucky, while massive flooding in the summer of 2022 in Appalachia left dozens more Kentuckians dead.

Through it all, Beshear emerged as the front man, holding daily pandemic briefings for months and then leading relief efforts to help those left devastated by tornadoes and floods.

Last month, Beshear publicly and emotionally grieved the loss of a close friend who died when a Louisville bank employee opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing five coworkers. He has frequently invoked his Christian faith as a cornerstone of his efforts to lead the state through tough times.

In addition to Craft and Quarles, Cameron also defeated state Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, among others.

Quarles, offering a methodical, workman-like approach to campaigning, was hoping that support he had built through nearly two terms in statewide office would help him surge past his two main opponents. He nabbed a number of endorsements from local GOP officials.

But it was the combative rivalry between Cameron and Craft that dominated the primary campaign. Cameron endured an advertising blitz by Craft’s campaign — backed by her family’s fortune — and an outside group supporting her campaign. The pro-Craft group portrayed Cameron as an “establishment teddy bear” in claiming he wasn’t tough enough as attorney general. A pro-Cameron group swung back with attacks against Craft, who nabbed a last-minute endorsement from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Cameron’s handling of an investigation into the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in 2020 could come under renewed scrutiny as he campaigns as the GOP nominee. Taylor’s death and the police-related killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests.

In announcing a grand jury’s findings in Taylor’s death, Cameron said jurors “agreed” that homicide charges were not warranted against the officers, because they were fired upon. Three of the jurors disputed Cameron’s account, arguing that Cameron’s staff limited their scope and did not give them an opportunity to consider homicide charges against the police in Taylor’s death.

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