Bluegrass battle

Trump, McConnell tensions play out in Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary

Former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft has spent millions tying Ky. AG Daniel Cameron to the Senate minority leader

Photo by SAUL LOEB,MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on February 16, 2021 shows US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, October 27, 2020 and US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 5, 2020.

Days after the Kentucky Derby, another closely watched race in the Bluegrass State, the Republican primary for governor, is nearing the finish line, with two GOP frontrunners locked in fierce competition for the nomination.

The crowded primary on May 16 has turned into a heated battle between Daniel Cameron, the popular attorney general of Kentucky, and Kelly Craft, who served in the Trump administration as an ambassador to the United Nations.

Even as they are largely aligned on key issues, their rivalry has grown increasingly personal over the course of the campaign. Craft has spent millions on a series of attack ads targeting her chief opponent, notably including a recent TV spot in which Cameron is cast as an “insider” for his long association with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

It was a curious ad for several reasons, not least because Craft herself has previously contributed to McConnell, who was instrumental in helping to secure her U.N. ambassadorship. “She’s the ultimate insider,” Al Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “When people don’t disagree on issues, they have to disagree on personalities or backgrounds, and that’s how they’re trying to differentiate themselves.”

Her campaign’s assumption that McConnell would be unpalatable to voters in his home state, where he has served in the upper chamber for nearly four decades, was also indicative of how the GOP has changed under former President Donald Trump. The Senate leader has long had an icy relationship with Trump, who remains popular in Kentucky. 

Still, GOP strategists in Kentucky who spoke with JI are doubtful that Craft’s ad will meaningfully influence the primary, where Trump has already given his endorsement to Cameron. “It’s well-known that he was a protégé of McConnell and worked in his office and kind of sprang from that world,” Scott Jennings, a CNN commentator and longtime adviser to McConnell, said of Cameron. “One of the appealing things about him to his voters has been that he comes from Team Mitch and he’s also got the affections of Donald Trump. He looks like a unifying kind of guy.”

Despite his connection to McConnell, who is not planning to weigh in on the primary, Cameron, 37, has somewhat conspicuously shied away from alluding to their relationship during the race, observed T.J. Litafik, a Republican strategist in Lexington. “It’s the darndest thing ever,” he said. 

Likewise, he noted, Craft and a third viable candidate, Ryan Quarles, the agriculture commissioner, have avoided linking themselves to the Senate leader. “It’s funny, all three of them have definitive ties,” Litafik told JI. “But nobody wants to acknowledge it because of the battle between Trump and McConnell.”

Instead, Cameron and his allies have largely kept their focus on his endorsement from Trump, the most valuable asset in his campaign arsenal as Craft, 61, has continued to outspend him. The attorney general has also faced attacks from a pro-Craft super PAC — funded partly by her husband, the billionaire coal executive Joe Craft — that have sought to connect him to a Democrat, Alvin Bragg, who is Manhattan’s first Black district attorney. 

In debuting his first TV ad last month, Cameron, the first Black attorney general in Kentucky, chose to target Andy Beshear, the popular Democratic governor, rather than Craft. Meanwhile, he has received a boost from a new super PAC, Bluegrass Freedom Action, whose ads have dismissed Craft as “ultra-rich” and “desperate,” while emphasizing Cameron’s endorsement from Trump. “Craft worked for President Trump and Trump endorsed Daniel,” the narrator of one ad boasts, “not Craft.”

In a statement to JI, Gus Herbert, Cameron’s campaign manager, called the attorney general a “conservative fighter” and said he “stands out in the crowded field because he is running on a record, not on ads.”

“He is the only candidate that has fought back against Biden and Beshear, and won,” Herbert added. “He is the only candidate endorsed by President Trump, and he is the only candidate that can beat Andy Beshear this fall.”

Beshear, 45, previously served as attorney general and is the son of a former Democratic governor. He narrowly won election in 2019, when he unseated a Republican incumbent, and has since garnered bipartisan praise for his handling of natural disasters and tragedy. Polling suggests he would be tough to beat, even in a ruby-red state such as Kentucky.

Though public polling in the primary has been scarce, the most recent independent survey, released in mid-April, showed that Craft — at 24% among Republican primary voters — has been gaining ground on Cameron, who remained in first place with a six-point lead. The previous independent poll, in late January, had Craft trailing Cameron by 26 percentage points.

Most GOP strategists surveyed by JI last week believe Cameron is likely to clinch the nomination in a low-turnout election, even as they acknowledged that Craft has run a formidable campaign. “She’s really been doing a solid job at the grassroots in addition to the increased spending,” Litafik told JI. The former ambassador is also “doing the best job of keeping to the hot-button issues that I think are most effective in a split competitive Republican primary,” he added, citing her “opposition to the so-called ‘woke agenda’ and critical race theory.”

“Craft has been out there campaigning quite a bit, but I think she made some early missteps,” Tyler Glick, a GOP strategist in Louisville, countered in a recent interview. “She’s a first-time candidate, and I think that’s been apparent throughout the campaign.” He argued that Cameron “is well-liked and pulls from a lot of tents within the party.”

Weston Loyd, a spokesperson for Craft’s campaign, said in a statement to JI that the former ambassador “has the momentum going into” the primary “and will continue to meet with Kentuckians of all faiths and advocate for religious freedom here in the commonwealth.”

Even as the race has become hostile, Shlomo Litvin, a Chabad rabbi in Lexington who leads the Kentucky Jewish Council, said there is at least one personal matter on which Cameron and Craft are almost certainly in agreement. Each is partial to a prophetic line of biblical verse from Esther 4:14: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” According to Litvin, “there was a large sign in the attorney general’s office with those words.” For her part, Craft inscribed the line on a challenge coin she made as an ambassador to the U.N., Litvin recalled. 

Before the campaign, the two candidates had established connections with Jewish community members in Kentucky, Litvin told JI. He said that Craft had participated in a menorah lighting at the University of Kentucky to “express her support for the Jewish community” following an antisemitic attack.

In 2021, when Kentucky became the first state to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, Cameron “was supportive of using the IHRA definition in order to go after anyone who had committed antisemitic crimes,” Litvin said. “He also expressed extreme support for the Jewish community following various incidents across Kentucky.”

Both candidates have demonstrated their support for Israel, Litvin added. Cameron has been a leader in “fighting against” the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement targeting the Jewish state, he said, while praising Craft’s tenure at the U.N. “Most of the Jewish community sees those years as generally positive for Israel’s defense,” he noted. 

“Israel has no better friend than Kelly Craft,” said Loyd, Craft’s spokesperson, in his statement to JI last week. “As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly fought back against antisemitism sentiments around the globe, and she will do the same as governor of Kentucky.”

Herbert, Cameron’s campaign manager, highlighted the attorney general’s efforts to challenge church closures during the start of pandemic, calling him “a fierce defender of our foundational First Amendment right to worship as we see fit.”

“That is why when Andy Beshear shut down houses of worship during the pandemic, [Cameron] went into federal court and got our churches and synagogues re-opened,” Herbert said in his statement to JI. Cameron, he added, “is building a coalition of all faiths, colors and creeds to bring conservative values back to the governor’s mansion.”

Melanie Pell, a chief field operations officer for the American Jewish Committee who lives in Louisville, said she has “never had any questions about” Cameron’s “record” on speaking out against antisemitism. Craft, on the other hand, “has less of a Kentucky track record” with respect to such issues, she said.

More broadly, however, Pell insisted that many voters have grown “tired of the culture wars and want to see the candidates addressing the issues that are really affecting” the state. “There’s some fearmongering that’s happening already that we’re seeing, and I think the Jewish community, in general, is frustrated.”

Jennings, the CNN commentator and McConnell adviser, said it “is not unexpected that people will scrape and call” for the nomination in a state like Kentucky, where party registration has been trending Republican. “I don’t think anybody’s shocked by that,” he told JI. “But it does make a lot of folks uncomfortable, because most of these people — Craft, Cameron, Quarles — they have so many overlapping friends in the Republican Party.”

“We don’t have a long history of mash-up, chippy primaries,” he said. “We’ve had a few over the years, but they tend to leave lingering, hard feelings.”

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