Four of the top five Republican candidates for Kentucky governor took the stage on Tuesday night for a low-key first debate in one of the year’s most closely-watched races.
State Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset, Ky., Mayor Alan Keck faced off in Louisville.
Former UN Ambassador Kelly Craft declined an invitation to the debate, which was organized by the Jefferson County Republican Party.
The most recent race polls were released in January, with Cameron holding a sizable lead over other candidates. He took 39 percent of respondents’ support, followed by Craft at 13 percent, Quarles at 8 percent, Harmon at 5 percent and Keck at 2 percent.
Each candidate made their case for why they would be the best candidate to take on the popular Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in November. The GOP primary is May 16.
The four candidates agreed on almost all issues addressed, with each stating that they are pro-life, support the 2nd Amendment, support lowering or eliminating income tax and increasing support for teachers, among other issues.
They also agreed that the state should ban gender-affirming surgery for minors without parental consent, while Keck and Harmon went a step further and compared those procedures to crimes.
Observers say the debate lacked the necessary fireworks to upend the current standing of the Republican candidates.
“Cameron came in the favorite and he left the favorite,” Kentucky GOP strategist Scott Jennings said. “The only mentions of (Cameron) from the other candidates tonight were to praise him. As long as that remains, none of them will catch him.”
Cameron focused much of his time attacking President Biden and weighing in on national political issues. Throughout the night, he leaned into Republican culture war talking points, bringing up “critical race theory” and calling social justice policies “far-left indoctrination.”
Cameron also referenced Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) as examples the state could follow, pointing to their support of parental influence over education and on social issues.
Harmon and Quarles leaned on their faith, repeatedly mentioning the role of religion in their lives and the importance they believe it has for the state.
Keck carved a more moderate path, often choosing not to go as far as fellow candidates on more controversial political topics. That includes medical marijuana and sports betting legalization, which Keck said he emphatically supports. All candidates said they were at least open to legalization on those issues, with the exception of Harmon on gambling.
Jennings said Keck might be hoping to get through the primary with the support of more moderate voters.
“In this primary, most of the voters live in and around Louisville and Lexington. There’s a pretty decent suburban cohort which I can see being attracted to a more moderate course,” he said. “With a multi-headed field, no runoff provision, you don’t need 50 percent of the vote to win. That strategy is a pretty provocative thing.”
The candidates were each asked whether they support former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Cameron in the race. The three other candidates attempted to avoid the question of whether the GOP should move on from Trump, each noting that the focus should be on the 2023 race and not the 2024 one.
Keck went a step further, calling out Trump’s influence on state politics.
“Someone in this field needs to lead Kentucky. While Donald Trump endorsed Mr. Cameron, and he has every right to do it, he can’t come and save Kentucky,” he said. “One of us is going to have to lead, and I’m not looking backwards to 2020, I’m looking to 2023.”
The four candidates rarely attacked Beshear, who remains popular in red-state Kentucky, until the final minutes of the debate. The same January poll found that Beshear has a 61 percent approval rating.
Candidates’ strategy to focus on their own policy and campaign will most positively hurt them come November, Jennings said.
“During a debate like this, every topic I would have expected somebody to pivot to ‘Here’s why Beshear is wrong on it, here’s why I’m right,’ but they just never really did that,” he said. “My advice to the campaigns is to tell Republicans how you intend to beat Andy Beshear and why we have to beat Andy Beshear, and that case is yet to be made effectively.”
Democrats responded by calling attention to the lack of Beshear attacks and pointing to the governor’s record. Beshear has repeatedly touted the state’s record-low unemployment rate and the amount of economic development in the last four years.
“We heard a lot of noise and not a lot of substance, all meant to distract from the lack of plans to deliver real solutions for Kentuckians and their families,” Colmon Elridge, the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said in a statement after the debate. “While Governor Beshear has a long list of accomplishments… tonight I did not hear the GOP candidates talk about policies or actions that would improve the lives of Kentucky families.”