How a GOP mega-donor is trying to buy the Kentucky governorship

How a GOP mega-donor is trying to buy the Kentucky governorship

A Republican mega-donor is opening her wallet in an effort to win the Kentucky governorship — spending millions laying waste to the Republican frontrunner in an increasingly bitter primary.

Kelly Craft, a Trump-era United Nations ambassador and first-time candidate, and her allies have bombarded Kentucky airwaves with ads yoking her better-known opponent, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, to former President Barack Obama and portraying him as a “soft establishment teddy bear.” And that’s to say nothing of the hits on him focused on coal and crime — with one ad from a Craft-supportive super PAC drawing a fairly tenuous connection from Cameron to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a bogeyman in the GOP for his prosecution of former President Donald Trump in New York.

The spending by Craft has upended GOP politics in Kentucky, rocketing someone who was almost entirely unknown in the commonwealth outside of major donor circles to the top tier of the primary heap.

“Craft has bought herself into a two person race,” said Scott Jennings, a well-known Republican operative in the state who has remained neutral in the contest. “The question is ‘is there enough runway left?’”

But the brutal primary between the two could also come at a cost. The Kentucky governorship is a prime target for Republicans this year — with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear occupying the governorship in a state Trump won by 26 points in 2020. The circular firing squad now unfolding in the GOP primary is giving an already popular Democratic incumbent an opening to peel off at least a sliver of Republican voters turned off by the in-fighting.

Public polling for the primary has been incredibly sparse in the race — a recent poll from Emerson College/Fox56 released last week had Cameron at 30 percent and Craft at 24 percent — but Republicans believe the race has tightened since the beginning of the year, when Cameron was broadly believed to have a yawning lead.

Republicans point to two big inflection points left on the calendar: The lone debate where all three of the top-tier candidates will share a stage — a May 1 faceoff hosted by Kentucky Educational Television — and arguably the biggest event all year in the state: The Kentucky Derby. It falls just 10 days before the primary election.

Craft has loaned her campaign $7 million since the start of the year, according to campaign finance reports filed on Tuesday night, with an additional $260,000 coming from other donors. Cameron, by comparison, raised just over $400,000 in that same time period.

Ryan Quarles, the state agriculture commissioner, is a possible viable third candidate in the race — especially if the fight between Cameron and Kelly becomes hotter. Quarles was at 15 percent in the Emerson poll, the only other candidate sniffing double digits, and has touted a deep bench of endorsements from across the state’s 120 counties.

Craft’s campaign and Commonwealth PAC, a super PAC supporting her bid, have been throwing most of the haymakers, with Craft until relatively recently having the TV airwaves all to herself.

A pair of ads from her campaign looked to tie Cameron to President Joe Biden, Beshear and Obama on the future of a West Virginia coal plant — a deep blow in a state that has historically been the home to the coal industry.

And in a series of ads, the super PAC has used an extended motif of Cameron being a “soft establishment teddy bear,” literally transforming Cameron into a stuffed bear in a suit at the end of the ads. The most recent one is the Bragg ad, going after Cameron for at one point supporting cash bail reform. (“Prosecuted Trump!” the ad declares as a video of Bragg talking about bail reform plays.) It ends by morphing the two men into teddy bears.

Cameron’s backers have just started hitting back on the airwaves. On Tuesday, a pro-Cameron super PAC Bluegrass Freedom Action launched a new ad saying a “desperate Kelly Craft falsely attacks” Cameron, while noting that Trump has endorsed Cameron, not Craft. And in a statement to POLITICO, the super PAC’s general consultant Aaron Whitehead questioned if she was eligible to run for office under the state’s residency requirement.

“Absentee Ambassador Kelly Craft was a no show for her previous job — and now she’s pulling the same trick on Kentuckians by trying to buy her way out of a scandal,” Whitehead said. “No one knows if she actually lives in Kentucky or still lives in Oklahoma — which could disqualify her from the ballot.”

The group’s charge relies on reporting from POLITICO in 2019 that found she spent roughly a third of her time as U.S. ambassador to Canada in Kentucky or Oklahoma, along with federal and state political donations she has made through the 2022 cycle with an Oklahoma address. State law requires gubernatorial candidates to be a “citizen and resident of Kentucky for at least 6 years next preceding his [sic] election.”

Craft’s campaign was dismissive of the broadside from the super PAC. “The only thing more palpable than the momentum behind Kelly Craft is the Cameron team’s desperation,” Kristin Davison, a senior adviser for Craft, said in a statement.

Cameron could also lean more into Trump — who endorsed his campaign last summer, shortly after Craft and her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, were prominently pictured with the former president at the Kentucky Derby but months before her own campaign launch.

Kentucky’s most powerful Republican in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has not publicly weighed in on the race. But he has close ties to both candidates.

Craft and her husband have been longtime financial supporters of McConnell and the Republican Party more broadly. The then-Senate majority leader was instrumental in getting Craft nominated and confirmed to be U.N. ambassador.

Cameron has perhaps even deeper ties. He worked in McConnell’s office for two years and was widely assumed to be the successor-in-waiting for McConnell’s seat in the Senate when he eventually retires. Cameron’s decision to run for governor caught many by surprise, both in Washington and Kentucky.

Davison, the adviser to Craft, took a swipe at that close relationship between the two men in her statement, saying Cameron’s team was “having a bad morning after finding out their Mitch McConnell-groomed candidate has fallen a net 19 points over the last few weeks.”

Madison Fernandez contributed to this report.


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