FRANKFORT, Ky. – The general election campaign for Kentucky governor got off to a feisty start this week as Democrats worked to link the freshly minted Republican nominee to heavily criticized pardons by the vanquished predecessor of Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat who is trying to win a second term in GOP territory.
Republicans united behind attacks of their own, declaring at a Friday rally that Beshear has overstated his role in achievements they say stemmed from actions taken by the GOP-led Legislature.
“The governor has a press conference to take credit for the sun rising,” said Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers. “And I'm sure tonight he'll probably have a press conference taking credit for the sun setting.”
While Republicans, led by their gubernatorial nominee, Daniel Cameron, ridiculed the governor's record, Beshear stayed mostly above the fray. Beshear touted the state's record-setting pace of economic development projects and said he intended to deliver more as he trekked across Kentucky on a bus tour.
“We can be the generations that change everything for Kentucky," Beshear told more than 200 supporters who chanted “Andy, Andy” at an afternoon rally in Owensboro in western Kentucky. “We can turn our brain drain into a brain gain.”
If there was any doubt about national interest in the race, which could offer something of a preview of voter sentiment ahead of the 2024 presidential campaign, that was put to rest with a blistering ad launched on statewide television against Cameron by a group tied to the Democratic Governors Association.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, the association's chair, has vowed to spend heavily in Kentucky on Beshear's behalf, “maybe even at a historic pace to make sure he gets reelected.”
The association-backed ad accuses the Kentucky attorney general, who won the GOP nomination for governor in Tuesday's primary, of shirking his duties by failing to hold former Gov. Matt Bevin accountable for issuing hundreds of pardons and commutations in his final days in office.
It claims Cameron “passed the buck” by failing to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the last-minute pardons of violent criminals and others by Bevin before he left office following his electoral loss to Beshear in 2019.
Cameron joined other Republican nominees for statewide offices Friday at the rally at state GOP headquarters, where he ripped into the governor’s decision to allow the early release of some nonviolent inmates during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the people released ended up committing new crimes, Cameron said. They were mostly nonviolent drug and property crime offenders who were released to help ease the spread of the virus in prison populations, according to the governor.
Cameron called himself the “law-and-order candidate” and derisively labeled his Democratic opponent as the ”catch-and-release candidate.”
Cameron's barb reflected contrasting tones between the campaigns, the governor responded.
“While I'm out there talking about the future, trying to bring us together, move us not right nor left but forward, all you hear from my opponents are name calling, attempts to create division," Beshear told reporters at his Owensboro rally.
The Democratic attack ad is the first volley in what' sure to be a bitterly fought campaign. It previews a strategy of linking Cameron to Bevin, whose pugnacious style was rejected by many Kentuckians in favor of Beshear four years ago.
“Instead of passing the buck again, Daniel Cameron must finally answer for why he sided with Bevin and his cronies instead of Kentuckians by refusing to get to the bottom of this dangerous scandal,” Sam Newton, spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, said in a news release Friday.
Cameron was just weeks into his tenure as attorney general when he asked the FBI to investigate the flurry of Bevin pardons. The pardons included clemency for a convicted killer whose family held a fundraiser for Bevin and a convicted sex offender whose mother was married to a millionaire road contractor. Bevin's actions drew bipartisan repudiations.
Cameron responded that the Democratic attack ad was “completely absurd.” He said his decision to turn the investigation over to the FBI drew broad support at the time. Cameron also signaled that Beshear’s record will be ripe for attacks.
“It’s a record that does not reflect the values of the men, women and children of all 120 counties” in Kentucky, Cameron said.
Beshear broke from the gate fast at the outset of the general election campaign after he spent months taking hits from a crowded field of Republicans vying to challenge him in November. Beshear debuted his first ad Thursday, stressing record economic development gains during his term and the state's resilience after being hit by devastating tornadoes and flooding.
In another twist in the Bevin pardons scandal, Cameron hired Steve Pitt, who served as Bevin's general counsel, as one of his top advisers in the attorney general's office. Pitt pushed for one of Bevin’s controversial last-minute pardons while serving as the governor’s general counsel, the Courier Journal reported in 2020.
State Democratic Chair Colmon Elridge said this week that Cameron's response was “a slap in the face to the victims, their families, law enforcement and prosecutors who took these dangerous criminals off the streets.”
Cameron, Kentucky's first major-party Black nominee for governor, claimed a convincing victory Tuesday in a 12-candidate field. Beshear easily beat two under-the-radar challengers in his own primary.
Associated Press writer Sara Burnett contributed from Chicago.