What the GOP candidates for governor are saying ahead of Tuesday’s primary

Published 10:45 am Wednesday, May 10, 2023

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Kentucky Lantern

Next week, Kentucky voters will decide what the November election will look like.

Twelve Republicans will be on the ballot for governor after a primary campaign that has sparked attack ads and heated debates — and raised questions about whether Republicans can unite behind their eventual nominee this fall.

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As of Tuesday morning, Medium Buying reported that TV/radio ad spending in the Kentucky GOP primary had reached more than $10.17 million.

Among Republicans, former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft has closed ground on frontrunner Attorney General Daniel Cameron, according to independent polling last month.

Former President Donald Trump, who carried Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, nominated Craft to her ambassadorships (her first one was to Canada). But Trump has endorsed Cameron — before, as Craft points out, she joined the race.

Cameron, in addition to touting the endorsements by Trump and members of Kentucky law enforcement,  points to his record during a term as attorney general, especially his lawsuits against Beshear’s COVID-19 restrictions and his defense of Kentucky’s near-total ban on abortion.

Craft’s mostly self-funded campaign — she has loaned it almost $9.3 million — focuses on eradicating what she calls “woke” ideologies and books, especially regarding transgender people and in public schools. She also touts her “kitchen table tour” to listen to Kentuckians.

Her husband Joe Craft’s trust has given $1.5 million to a political action committee supporting her campaign. Joe Craft is president and CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, one of the nation’s largest coal producers.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who often stays out of criticizing Cameron and Craft, has focused on building a grassroots campaign and cultivating endorsements by local officials. Quarles — who grew up on a farm in Scott County and has earned advanced degrees from Vanderbilt, Harvard and the University of Kentucky — often highlights his connection to rural Kentucky. He was in the legislature before winning two terms as agriculture commissioner.

Alan Keck, the mayor of Somerset, has carved a moderate lane for himself in the crowded field, bristling at the primary’s negative tone, saying political attacks turn off voters, while touting his administration’s economic accomplishments in the Pulaski County seat.

Suspended Northern Kentucky Attorney Eric Deters, who thanks to an April poll and the boost from self-funding his campaign with more than $700,000, has been invited to televised debates and used the opportunity to criticize all of his Republican opponents, Craft in particular. A Fayette County judge recently dismissed a residency challenge he filed against Craft. An ardent supporter of Trump and sponsor of a Freedom Fest featuring conservative celebrities such as Trump’s sons, Deters often takes to social media to get out the word about his campaign.

Mike Harmon, a two-term state auditor and former state legislator, has raised too little money to run a high-profile campaign.

Scant differences on the issues

Very little separates the Republican contenders on issues or what they see as Beshear’s weaknesses heading into the November election. The Republican nominee seems sure to attack the Democratic incumbent’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as oppressive and paint Beshear as a cultural and political radical for his veto of a sweeping anti-trans bill and his support for abortion rights.

But first registered Republicans must choose a nominee.

Here is a look at candidates’ positions on some issues often raised as they stump. The statements are taken from campaign stops, debate appearances and a candidate survey:


In March, Cameron released his education policies, which include raises for teachers, though the campaign press release did not specify how much, and keeping “the far-left from indoctrinating our students.”

During the May 1 KET debate, Craft said that candidates cannot just talk about teacher raises during an election year, but “we need to be talking about our teachers’ salaries every single day,” adding that they also need support for classroom resources. At the time, she didn’t specify how much the raise should be.

Cameron and Craft have vowed to go after “woke” ideologies in schools.

Craft has made “dismantling” the Kentucky Department of Education and her intent to get rid of Education Commissioner Jason Glass a centerpiece of her campaign, though the governor has no direct control over either.

Quarles’ plans include working with the General Assembly and school districts to “review & enhance pay scales, reduce administrative burdens, and create a culture that focuses on teaching instead of red tape.” Other policies of his include supporting teacher recruitment and retainment, vocational and trade education and affordability in pursuing higher education.

In response to a survey from the Lantern, Keck said he wants to “invest in public and private programs for pre-K and early literacy, increase teacher pay, protect pensions, make student teaching a paid internship, change the testing culture so that teachers no longer feel pressured to teach to the standardized test, fund more student support personnel in classrooms so teachers can focus on instruction, and promote personal responsibility in the classroom so that our students are equipped for adulthood.”

While calling himself a wholehearted supporter of public schools, Keck says he’s also a strong proponent of “school choice” and “giving parents a voice in their child’s education and raising the bar for educational standards.”

Harmon told the Lantern that “we have lost our focus and must fight to get the child back to the top of the educational pyramid” and that “goals should be aligned to empower parents at every single avenue with every tool (including school choice) possible regardless of financial ability.“ He also said “that traditional public education will always be the strongest pier in supporting the goals of Kentucky’s educational system” and “we must get back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate David Cooper, who lives in Northern Kentucky and is a member of the Kentucky Army National Guard, said in response to the Lantern that he would support trade schools at the middle school level as well as a mandatory life skills class for graduating seniors.

“I absolutely hate to have to say this, because when I was in school, I felt very, very safe, but I would like to create a safer atmosphere for teachers and students,” Cooper continued. “If that means metal detectors at school entrances, more SRO’s (School Resource Officers), increased safety measures in classrooms then so be it. I would also like to tackle bullying, healthier school lunches, and helping teachers getting the backing and help they need against their administrations when incidents occur in their classrooms. Teachers shouldn’t have to walk on egg shells at work worried they might lose their jobs defending themselves or put up with unruly students.

Suspended Northern Kentucky attorney Eric Deters said during the KET Debate he supports charter schools, homeschooling and firing Glass, too.

Gender identity

Cameron, Craft, Harmon and Quarles have all expressed support for Senate Bill 150, the  sweeping new law that bans transgender medical care for minors in Kentucky and places new anti-LGBTQ restrictions on schools. They criticized Beshear’s veto of the measure, which the legislature easily overrode.

Craft has been the most vocal in denouncing protections for transgender students.

Craft’s running mate, Sen. Max Wise, sponsored SB 150. In a joint statement, Craft and Wise called Beshear “out of step” with what Kentuckians are talking about: “communication and engagement with their children’s schools.” The two vowed to “ensure our children are protected, make sure parents are heard, and empower teachers to focus on providing a world-class education that teaches our children how to think, not what to think.”

“Under a Craft-Wise administration, we will not have transgenders in our school system,” she said during a Monday tele-town hall. “We will make certain that parents have the right to see what’s in the library, what is there for their children to read.”

Cameron has said he would have signed SB 150 if he were governor.

Quarles said, “By vetoing this bill, Andy has shown his views more closely align with the radical far-left rather than that of Kentuckians. Gender reassignment surgeries for children and minors should not be allowed in Kentucky and teachers should have certain protections in the classroom when it comes to their own personal beliefs.”

Harmon calls the measure the “save our children omnibus bill.” In response to a question from the Lantern about how legislation like SB 150 could potentially create challenges for a Kentucky governor in attracting workers and employers to the state, he said: “Given that people are fleeing states like California and others that would undermine the health and well being of their citizens and their children, I think the additional protections will encourage those wanting to protect their children to come to Kentucky increasing the workforce and our businesses.

In his answer to the Lantern, Keck said: “Kentucky has developed a reputation for strong faith and family values, and that’s why more and more people are moving from urban areas all over the United States to the Heartland. We’ve experienced this in Somerset, having welcomed a number of families who want to live in a rural community with shared values. We can lean into this as a state, using it as a catalyst for growth while also treating everyone with fairness, decency and respect.”

Craft has also made an issue of transgender women competing in women’s sports and was joined on the campaign trail by former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, a vocal opponent of the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports.

During a Louisville stop in April, Craft said: ““I’m not anti-trans. I am for women. I am for women having a level playing field. I’m for the safety and I want to make certain that transgender who want to have … a category for their athleticism to be able to compete with one another — that’s not a problem. But what I’m standing for is to make certain that we protect our females and we protect our young girls.”

Quarles has also posted on social media that he believes in protecting “the integrity of women’s sports.”


When the United States Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion last summer, it allowed Kentucky’s “trigger law” to take effect, which banned abortion immediately.

As attorney general, Cameron has successfully defended the near-total ban against a legal challenge. In February, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled against an ACLU request to uphold a lower court’s reinstatement of abortion access, keeping the six-week ban in place as the case is litigated.

All of the leading Republican candidates support Kentucky’s current ban on abortion.

Craft, Keck and Deters have said they favor adding exceptions for victims of rape and incest. During a Tuesday debate carried in multiple Kentucky TV markets, Deters said he favored adding exceptions for victims of rape and incest up to 15 weeks but would not push to change the current state law.

Questioned at a debate last month, Quarles said “it’s important for us to talk about our broken adoption and foster care system in our state” and has called for working with the church community and pregnancy crisis centers. “I’ve met somebody who was conceived through rape and I value that person’s life just as much as anyone else,” Quarles said.

Harmon has said his “belief that every life is precious” is one of the reasons he got into the race.

Citing his experience as the father of three girls, Keck called an absolute ban “a slippery slope,” after the Louisville GOP Debate in March. He also has called for more resources to support families, such as incentives for paid maternity or paternity leave and making Kentucky’s adoption process easier.

Kentucky Right to Life has endorsed Cameron, Harmon and Quarles. Craft is recommended by the group.


As attorney general Cameron chairs the Kentucky Opioid Abatement Action Commission, which the legislature created to oversee disbursement of hundreds of millions of dollars expected from legal settlements with the drug industry. Cameron often highlights the commission’s work and has been hosting Operation Fight Fentanyl roundtables around the state.

Craft made fighting Kentucky’s opioid epidemic a cornerstone of her campaign with her first TV ad, featuring an empty chair which she said symbolized a family member who later recovered from substance use. She has called for the death penalty for dealers who sell drugs that cause a fatal overdose.

Quarles has said he would support allowing those who have sold fentanyl that later resulted in the death of a Kentuckian to be charged with homicide and expressed support for addiction recovery efforts.

Harmon’s three-step plan includes compelling President Joe Biden to control national borders, a full review of Kentucky laws to “ensure that we have the tools to effectively tackle the serious” problem and increasing faith-based treatments and providing more treatment resources to those who are experiencing addiction.

During the Louisville GOP Debate, Keck said a “lack of hope and opportunity” has been a generations-long issue for Kentuckians and added that desperation and generational poverty were factors in drug use. He referred to some of his pro-family policies as a solution.

Medicaid Work Requirements

During the KET debate, candidates were asked about imposing work requirements on Medicaid recipients. Cameron said he supported work requirements, such as volunteer work, for able-bodied people on Medicaid. “Medicaid has to be a transitory program,” he continued. “It doesn’t need to be something, again, for able bodied individuals that they stay on for the remainder of their lives.”

Craft agreed with Cameron, saying Medicaid should be “a pathway to dignity” for able-bodied people, which could include community service, attending classes or applying for jobs.

Quarles also said he supported Medicaid work requirements.

During the earlier Kentucky Sports Radio debate, Keck said he supported sliding scale benefits for the working poor.

State Income Tax

Quarles, Keck, Cameron and Harmon have said they supported House Bill 1, which the General Assembly approved and Beshear signed this session and will lower the state income tax by a half-percent. Quarles and Cameron said they would eventually like to see it lowered to 0%. Deters also said he supports getting rid of the income tax.