FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron touted his endorsement from Donald Trump as an honor, reasserting his steadfast loyalty to the former president while campaigning for governor after a civil jury found the ex-president liable for sexually abusing an advice columnist nearly three decades ago.-
“He is a fighter and I am a fighter,” Cameron said during a televised debate Tuesday that didn't include his main rival for the nomination, Kelly Craft.
With a narrow early voting window set to begin Thursday for the May 16 primary, Republican candidates campaigned all across the Bluegrass State, trying to set themselves apart in a race where the main contenders sound alike on core economic and social issues. Instead, most of the talk about issues was overshadowed by a barrage of attack ads between camps supporting Cameron or Craft. The heated tenor of the campaign may have exacerbated voter indifference, adding to the sense that the fiercest contest will come in November when the winner tries to knock off Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
“There doesn't seem to be a lot of enthusiasm or interest in this primary,” said GOP political consultant T.J. Litafik. “I'm not seeing a particularly high level of engagement really anywhere in this state.”
Trump's support for Cameron looms large in the 12-candidate GOP field. Trump easily carried Kentucky in his first two presidential runs and his coattails were long. When Trump won the White House in 2016, Kentucky Republicans gained control of the Kentucky House — achieving a decades-long dream as they cemented their dominance in the legislature.
Now Republicans are trying to wrest away the Democrats' last bastion of statewide power.
The party's nominee is expected to challenge Beshear, who is seeking reelection to a second term and faces nominal opposition in his party’s primary. The governor has received consistently high voter approval ratings while presiding over record economic development and managing a series of tragedies, from the pandemic to tornadoes and floods. The fall campaign is a test of whether Democrats — even one seemingly as popular as Beshear — can hold their own in red states.
The Republican campaign has spiraled into a bitter rivalry between Cameron and Craft, who served as U.S. ambassador to Canada and the United Nations during Trump's presidency. The first-term attorney general has taken digs at Craft over his success in gaining Trump's nod, and the endorsement is featured on his campaign website and in TV ads promoting Cameron.
But as Trump faces a swirl of legal risks, Kentucky's chief law enforcement officer is likely to face continued questions about those cases if he emerges as the Republican nominee.
At the outset of the debate Tuesday night, Cameron was asked about the jury verdict and how he now feels about Trump's endorsement. Hours earlier, a jury in New York found Trump liable for sexually abusing advice columnist E. Jean Carroll decades ago, awarding her $5 million.
“Well, I don’t know the specifics of the civil complaint, and I understand it was something that involved something 30 years ago," Cameron said. “But I’m honored to have President Trump’s endorsement.”
Cameron then lashed out at a fellow prosecutor — the Manhattan district attorney at the forefront of a New York criminal case against Trump that's related to hush money payments made to a porn actor. Cameron said the prosecutor has “weaponized” the judicial system “to try to destroy” Trump.
During the same debate, GOP gubernatorial candidate Eric Deters stoutly defended Trump and said he looked forward to Trump winning back the White House in 2024.
“I believe the verdict is a bunch of balderdash,” Deters said. "I believe the woman is lying.”
Trump is also contending with investigations into his possible mishandling of classified documents, his actions after the 2020 election and his activities during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump denies wrongdoing in all of those matters.
Trump's support remains solid in Kentucky despite his legal woes in New York, said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator and former adviser to President George W. Bush.
“Obviously there’s more to come for the rest of the year, but primary voting Republicans don’t appear to be bothered by these New York City legal issues,” Jennings said.
Meanwhile, Craft has touted her endorsement from U.S. Rep. James Comer, the Kentucky Republican whose national profile among conservatives has surged as chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Craft also is scheduled to campaign alongside Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Saturday.
Another Kentucky GOP gubernatorial hopeful, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, says he has amassed more than 230 endorsements from elected Republicans statewide, including scores of county officials, saying it reflects strong grassroots support.
Beshear won the governorship in 2019, defeating then-Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a Trump ally who couldn't overcome the self-inflicted damage caused by his combative style. If Beshear follows his campaign formula from four years ago, he will avoid talking about Trump to risk further energizing his opponent’s conservative base.
Democrats have relished the GOP infighting, something one candidate acknowledged at the debate.
“All this mudslinging and fighting that’s going on right now only helps out one person, and that’s Andy Beshear,” Quarles said.