Price on Politics: Way too early predictions – the race for Kentucky Governor

Price Wilborn, Commentary writer

I know, the midterms were just a few days ago. You’re probably tired of hearing from me about elections. So, why write about more elections?

Immediately following the midterms, pundits began shifting their focus to the 2024 general election. In Kentucky, however, the focus will be on 2023.

Next year, Governor Andy Beshear is up for reelection. Beshear and several Republicans have already announced their candidacies, and the race will begin heating up very soon.

The Republican primary

There are currently five Republicans vying for the GOP nomination for governor in 2023. They are Ryan Quarles, current Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner; Daniel Cameron, current Kentucky Attorney General; Kelly Craft, former Ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration; Savannah Maddox, current state representative for parts of Northern Kentucky; and Mike Harmon, current Kentucky State Auditor.

Each candidate has varying chances of success in receiving the Republican nomination. Those with the greatest chances are Quarles, Cameron and Craft.

Ryan Quarles was born in Scott County, Kentucky, graduating from the University of Kentucky for the first time in 2006. In 2008, Quarles received a Master’s degree in higher education from Harvard University, and in 2018, he received both his law degree and his doctorate in higher education from the University of Kentucky and Vanderbilt University, respectively. He was elected as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture in 2015, being reelected in 2019. Prior to serving as agriculture commissioner, he served in the Kentucky House of Representatives. From 2011 to 2016, Quarles represented Scott County in Frankfort.

Kelly Craft, born in Lexington, served in the Trump Administration first as US Ambassador to Canada – the first female to hold the role – then as US Ambassador to the United Nations. In these roles, she played a key part in negotiating the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Craft graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1984.

Prior to her time in the Trump administration, she served as a delegate to the United Nations under George W. Bush and as an operative in the Republican Party, serving the organization in several different roles.

Daniel Cameron was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. He attended the University of Louisville, graduating from the university’s Louis. D. Brandeis School of Law in 2011. He was elected to serve as Attorney General in 2019. Prior to election, Cameron held a variety of positions in Washington, clerking for a federal judge and serving as legal counsel to Senator Mitch McConnell.

Savannah Maddox has served in the Kentucky House of Representatives since 2019. Mike Harmon has served as Kentucky State Auditor since 2015.

As Agriculture Commissioner, Quarles made himself visible to Kentuckians across the commonwealth. He has already received the endorsements of many state representatives and local elected officials. He was the second to announce his candidacy for governor (Harmon being the first), and he has the name recognition to win.

The Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture is the head of the commonwealth’s Department of Agriculture. In this position, Quarles has advocated for and expanded agriculture in the state. As one of the largest industries in the state, it is this visibility and work that makes Quarles a viable candidate.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniel Cameron made it his mission to strike down restrictions and regulations put in place by Governor Andy Beshear and President Joe Biden. In November of last year, Cameron sued the Biden Administration about its vaccine mandate for federal contractors. In July 2020, the Attorney General tried to block the Governor’s past and future executive orders concerning the pandemic. This antagonism between the AG and the Governor has continued throughout the pandemic.

Beshear’s COVID-19 policy became increasingly unpopular as the pandemic progressed. By taking action against it, Cameron set himself up to be a candidate that not only promises to undo action taken by the Governor, but has a record to prove that he did.

Kentucky has long been a deep red state politically. Since the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, this has only been solidified. This is why Kelly Craft has a solid chance at winning the GOP nomination. As a member of the Trump administration, Craft has the unique ability to say she worked closely with the former president. In 2020, Trump won 62.1% of the vote to Joe Biden’s 36.1%.

In her roles as US Ambassador to Canada and Ambassador to the United Nations, Craft was key in negotiating the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement and advancing Trump’s foreign policy at home and abroad. Craft already announced her running mate, State Senator Max Wise of Kentucky’s 16th district, which includes part of Warren County.

Craft’s time with the Trump administration is competing with the former president himself, however. In June, the former president endorsed Daniel Cameron’s bid for governor. While this was seen as an endorsement far too early in the race, Trump doubled down on Oct. 10, pledging in a video tweeted by Cameron his “Complete and Total Endorsement.”

Cameron, however, is hurt by his response to the shooting of Breonna Taylor in March 2020. Following the shooting and the investigation by his office, the AG announced that the officers involved would not be indicted. Following the federal indictment of the four officers involved, the Louisville NAACP and others began calling for Cameron’s resignation.

My way too early prediction is that Quarles will be the Republican nominee. Despite Craft and Cameron’s close associations with Donald Trump, Quarles has worked for Kentuckians. His work as Agriculture Commissioner has given him a chance to uniquely see the needs of all Kentuckians. His education and work credentials have given him wide experience that places him above the rest.

While Craft will run on the fact that she worked for Trump and Cameron will run on the fact that he worked against Governor Beshear’s COVID-19 policies, Quarles is in the unique position to argue that he has worked for more Kentuckians and will continue to do so as governor. Quarles has spent more time in Kentucky working for Kentuckians than Craft while being less focused on politics than Cameron, which puts him in an even better position to secure the nomination.

The General election

After the GOP primaries, Andy Beshear will be in the spotlight as he continues his bid for his second term as governor, along with his running mate, Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman. Beshear’s first term has been unprecedented, however.

Months into his term, Kentucky and the world was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Beshear-Coleman administration took measures from the start, working to ensure the safety of Kentuckians. Beshear shut down the state’s public schools, encouraged Kentuckians to stay home, imposed mask mandates and more. While doing these things, Beshear held daily press conferences to keep Kentuckians up-to-date on the everchanging state of the pandemic and what his administration was doing to fight the pandemic.

Over time, the governor’s COVID-19 policies became unpopular with many. While Kentuckians were ready to get back to normal, Beshear continued to hold his daily Team Kentucky briefings. He imposed mask mandates, encouraged Kentuckians to keep their distance and abide by all CDC rules. Many felt the Governor was “stoking fear” and trying to keep Kentuckians “in line.”

Despite this unpopularity, Andy Beshear remained adamant that his policies were going to help the commonwealth get through the pandemic. While he could have bent to pressure, he remained true to his beliefs and to his policies. Instead of doing what was easy, Beshear did what he felt was right, putting politics aside and putting the people of Kentucky first.

Beshear’s COVID-19 policies will both help and hurt him. Republicans will criticize the Governor for infringing upon the freedoms enumerated in the the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Kentucky’s state constitution. They will accuse him of being too harsh and too liberal, using his emergency powers granted by the state legislature to go too far and advance an agenda that is too liberal and too like that of President Joe Biden.

Democrats, however, will praise Beshear. They will say he did what was right in the face of scrutiny and pressure. They will argue that this is exactly what a leader must do in a crisis like the pandemic. Without the work done by Beshear and his administration, they would argue that the pandemic in Kentucky would have been much worse.

In the past year, however, Beshear’s term has been also defined by not one but two unprecedented natural disasters.

On December 10, 2021, a tornado ripped through Western Kentucky, traveling just over 160 miles. Towns like Mayfield and Dawsons Spring were devastated. Bowling Green saw terrible damage. The tornado took the lives of almost 80 Kentuckians.

At the end of July, 13 Kentucky counties were devastated by unprecedented flooding. The flooding came after several days of severe storms and heavy rainfall in the region. According to the National Weather Service, “there is less than a 1 in 1000 chance for this much rainfall over five days in a given year.” 38 Kentuckians were killed.

Following each of these events, the Governor was on the ground surveying the damage. He lobbied President Biden for federal relief for the victims. He established the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund and the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund. The funds have raised over $52 million and over $9.7 million, respectively.

In the aftermath of both disasters, Beshear promised to be there for those Kentuckians that lost so much in any way possible. He kept this promise. He consistently went down to Eastern and Western Kentucky. He created programs to help. He presented checks and ensured money from the funds went directly to those who needed it.

Beshear’s actions during and after the flooding, the tornado and COVID-19 showed him to be a compassionate leader who kept his promises, was a genuine person and only wanted the best for Kentuckians. He will prove to be a formidable opponent for any GOP nominee.

If Harmon or Maddox were the nominee, Beshear would easily win reelection. Their lack of name recognition and records hurt them against a sitting governor who has seen more unprecedented events than many who have held the office.

Against Cameron, the general election would be about nothing other than COVID-19. Cameron would tout his continued efforts to put an end to Beshear’s policies that he views as restricting the rights of Kentuckians. He would paint the Governor as trying to advance a “liberal agenda” that is rewarding people for not working.

The Governor would respond that his policies slowed the spread of the virus drastically. He would argue that his policies would have been even more effective without interference by the Attorney General. He would admit to some missteps – namely the August 2021 mask mandate for schools that was ultimately rescinded – while proving his record.

Against Craft, the focus would be on Joe Biden and Donald Trump just as much as it would be on Kelly Craft and Andy Beshear. The fact is that Kentuckians love the former president just as much as they dislike the current president. Because Kelly Craft was a member of the administration, she would play the Trump card as much as she could while painting Beshear as trying to advance the “far-left liberal” agenda of Joe Biden, which has increased inflation, hurt Kentucky’s economy and attacked values Kentuckians hold dear.

Beshear would counter that his record shows that he has worked for Kentuckians. He has reached across the aisle to get things done, which is necessary in a state with a Republican supermajority in both houses of the state legislature. He would point out that he made efforts to lower inflation and ease the burdens on Kentuckians through actions like stopping the increase in the state gas tax. He would also point out that his administration has seen some of the best economic growth in state history. The state’s two highest revenue surpluses and lowest unemployment rate for several months in a row show this.

Against Quarles, Beshear sees his toughest challenge. Quarles, through his role as Agriculture Commissioner, has seen firsthand the struggles of Kentuckians. He would argue that he would bring a new conservative platform to the Governor’s Mansion. He would argue for the protection of values that many Kentuckians hold dear, like pro-choice and anti-LGBTQ+ values.

Beshear would counter with the points made against Cameron and Craft. He would argue that he wants to make a better, more inclusive Kentucky for all. His economic, COVID-19 and other policies show that he has made strides towards this goal. While Quarles will paint Beshear as attacking traditional values, the Governor will argue that the world is changing and that Kentucky cannot be left behind.

The 2023 Kentucky Gubernatorial election will be close, no matter the outcome. My way too early prediction is that Beshear will win with Craft, Cameron, Maddox or Harmon as the GOP nominee. Should Quarles be the nominee, however, the Governor will face fiercer competition.

Commentary writer Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.