Trump-endorsed Daniel Cameron wins Republican nomination for Kentucky governor

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Attorney General Daniel Cameron won the Republican nomination for governor in Kentucky, setting up the highest-profile governor race of 2023.

Cameron, a protégé of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, emerged on top of a GOP field that included Kelly Craft, a Republican megadonor and then-President Donald Trump’s final U.N. ambassador. Cameron was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Cameron had 45.4 percent to Craft’s 17.6 percent when the Associated Press called the contest Tuesday evening — a blowout.

Cameron was the frontrunner for the GOP nomination since announcing his bid this time last year, picking up an early endorsement from Trump before his main opponent even got in the race.

He will face popular incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in November. Republicans acknowledge that beating Beshear will be tough. Defeating a popular incumbent governor is generally one of the hardest things to do in politics.

But they argue that Cameron, a rising star in Kentucky Republican politics, is the best positioned to do so.

“Daniel has a strong case for being the advocate for people who feel like they were disenfranchised or not listened to or just trampled upon during Covid,” said Scott Jennings, a prominent Republican consultant in the state who was neutral in the primary. “I mean small business owners, churches, parents. There's a lot of people out there that are still pretty sore about that.”

It is something that Cameron himself has signaled he was going to lean into. His opening ad for the primary went after Beshear, saying he “ignored the Constitution and shut churches down.”

Republicans argue they have significant structural advantages. Republicans officially overtook Democrats in voter registration totals last summer, capping off a long-running trend of ancestral Democrats voting for Republicans at the federal level.

But perhaps most importantly, one of the biggest things Cameron has going for him is that he is not Matt Bevin, the deeply unpopular Republican incumbent that Beshear narrowly defeated in 2019. Bevin was incredibly confrontational with even members of his own party, and he was dogged by a bevy of scandals that ultimately led to his undoing.

“The most bipartisan thing Matt Bevin ever did was be disliked by everybody in both parties,” said Jennings. "People just didn't like the guy and Daniel does not have that problem.”

Cameron will, however, have to unite the party after a particularly brutal struggle for the nomination.

Craft and her allies pummeled Cameron for months, ranging from ads that labeled him as “establishment teddy bear” before literally morphing a photo of him into a stuffed bear, along with other ads that tried to tether him to Beshear and President Joe Biden.

Cameron began fighting back in April, firing shots at his deep-pocketed rival. It was ultimately successful for Cameron, but it came with a cost: Campaign finance data indicate his campaign account has just over $340,000 left in its coffers as of the beginning of this month. The Republican Governors Association is expected to spend significantly, and has already run an ad taking an early shot at Beshear.

Beshear has stockpiled over $7 million, and the Democratic Governors Association has signaled it would spend heavily to boost the only incumbent Democratic governor on the ballot this year.

DGA executive director Meghan Meehan-Draper told POLITICO last month defending Beshear is the committee’s “number one priority.”

Democrats argue that Beshear is also well positioned from his tenure as governor. Beshear has had the duty of overseeing recovery efforts for several major tragedies, from the pandemic to a major mass shooting to significant natural disasters. It has placed him regularly in front of Kentuckians, where he positioned himself not as a partisan fighter but as a steady hand to helm the state through uncertain moments.

“He has been a rock solid governor, he has led the state with integrity and with dignity, he has ushered in a dramatic transformation in terms of our economy,” said Colmon Elridge, the chair of the state Democratic Party.

Democrats have signaled they planned to try to tie Cameron to Bevin’s administration, arguing the two men share similar political networks, with Elridge saying he is “unprepared to lead and he is too self-involved to lead our commonwealth.”

The race could also bring early signs of the larger political environment heading into next year’s presidential election. Although Kentucky will not be competitive on the presidential level, it is the biggest off-year contest this year and has long been seen as a messaging testing ground.

Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky Republican secretary of state, noted that for decades the Kentucky gubernatorial election has helped shape national party messaging the next year, like when Beshear successfully targeted Kentucky suburbs in 2019 before his nail-biter of a win.

“The swing suburbs of Pennsylvania look like the swing suburbs of Kentucky,” he said.