How the GOP Liberty vs. mainstream GOP battle is playing out in 2024 KY primaries

Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, recently issued a public service announcement-style warning.

“We need to talk about the CCCP,” she posted to social media site X.

“No, I’m not talking about the Soviet Union– I’m talking about the so-called ‘Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC,’” she wrote. “Despite its deceptive name, it’s actually a coalition of RINO swamp rats who are running campaign ads against the most conservative legislators in the General Assembly.”

RINO is an acronym for “Republican in name only,” an insult often doled out by Republicans against Republicans. Maddox pointed out that the PAC is backed by teachers’ unions, Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Hospital Association and big corporations.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC is the highest-funded of about a dozen organizations that have spent significant money in this year’s contentious GOP primaries. It’s dropped more than $1 million total, mostly supporting candidates fending off Liberty GOP challengers.

Liberty Republicans are a loosely organized network of Kentucky politicos intent on pushing the already-conservative state legislature to the right, and are often antagonistic to mainstream Republicans they deem too “establishment.”

The battle between these two sides of the Republican party has become the most consequential political war in the last two primary seasons, as the Liberty movement seeks to gain ground in the legislature. All told, the outside spending on both sides of the battle is approaching $2 million — a high amount for about a dozen primary races where turnout is projected around 15%, per Secretary of State Michael Adams.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC has run many an ad and political mailer touting its preferred candidates’ conservative credentials. Its meat and potatoes Republican messaging has centered around immigration, support for police, former GOP president Donald Trump and lowering taxes.

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Largely promoting the same candidates as Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC is Common Sense Kentucky, a PAC founded by former Republican Party of Kentucky spokesman Tres Watson. That group has reported around $65,000 in spending so far — the Jefferson County Teachers Association gave it $100,000 — but some has been put toward defeating Central Kentucky prosecutor Sharon Muse Johnson.

On the other side, the biggest PAC engaging in the primary is Make Liberty Win. The group is funded by Young Americans for Liberty, a Texas libertarian Republican group rooted in student activism; due to its status as a “dark money” group, many of its funders are concealed. The group has spent about $230,000 so far on a handful of Liberty candidates, mostly in the House.

Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action is a PAC also supporting Liberty GOP candidates. It’s spent around $67,000 in those races.

Backing a similar set of candidates is Commonwealth Educational Opportunities PAC. That group is focused on issues of “school choice,” a phrase used to refer to the movement to allow public dollars to help fund education at nonpublic and charter schools in Kentucky.

That group has spent around $55,000 so far according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. Gary Houchens, a former state school board member under former GOP governor Matt Bevin, serves as policy advisor for the group.

One group, Kentuckians For All of Us, features an unlikely donor given that it’s playing in a GOP primary. Jane Van Meter is the president of the Lexington-based Trans Safe Action Fund, a group advocating for transgender rights; she’s spent $35,000 supporting Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, in her primary against a Liberty challenger.

In a Rolling Stone story about her participation in conservative state politics, Van Meter said, “It’s just reality: (Republicans) have a supermajority.”

Meanwhile, Liberty-aligned PACs have hit Moser for voting no on Senate Bill 150, a total ban on gender-affirming care for Kentucky trans youth which passed last year. During floor debate on a similar bill, she apologized for the bill’s passage and told “the rest of the world who’s watching Kentucky: we are not complete Neanderthals.”

Some on the Liberty side have speculated that Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC, formed by former Jefferson County Republican chairman Don Parkinson, represents the interests of leadership like House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect. They’ve pointed to the fact that the PAC uses the law firm to which House leadership’s attorney Eric Lycan belongs; the group paid the firm about $18,000 in legal fees, according to Federal Elections Commission records.

House GOP spokesperson Laura Leigh Goins responded to an inquiry emphasizing that Osborne is “not part of a PAC.”

“While the Speaker is an active fundraiser for the caucus campaign committee, he is not part of a PAC,” Goins said. “Eric Lycan has a private practice and the firm he is with provides counsel to election clients in numerous states.”

Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives David Osborne gaveled the House into session on the first day of the 2024 Kentucky General Assembly in Frankfort, Ky. Jan. 2, 2024
Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives David Osborne gaveled the House into session on the first day of the 2024 Kentucky General Assembly in Frankfort, Ky. Jan. 2, 2024

Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian Republican group affiliated with the Koch Brothers, has spent around $170,000 supporting just three candidates. Two of those are running as Liberty candidates. Aaron Reed, who’s running against another Liberty-backed candidate in Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, has received the biggest chunk.

Rep. Marianne Proctor, R-Union, also got a boost. Proctor worked with the group on trying to reform the certificate of need regulatory process for hospitals, a major priority for Americans for Prosperity.

A defining race

The late spring evening light filtered through the cracks of barnwood at an events venue in rural Jessamine County, illuminating such merchandise as a silver “Trump 47” necklace and lapel pin, a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, a “God Patriot” ring, a specialized bourbon basket and more.

About 200 people crowded into the barn for a silent auction, sustenance and political speeches from the area’s representatives at the Jessamine County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner event.

A silent auction table at the Jessamine County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner.
A silent auction table at the Jessamine County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner.

Perhaps the cheeriest in the crowd was Lydia Fuller, a retired designer who moved from Florida to Wilmore in the 1990s to attend Asbury University’s Theological Seminary.

“It wasn’t until I was 44 years old that I looked up and said ‘I’ll do it your way, God,’” she said.

Fuller often interjected in the style of an encouraging parishioner during speeches from area U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and Nicholasville Republicans Rep. Matt Lockett and Sen. Donald Douglas.

Surveying the crowd, she said that what characterizes Jessamine County Republicans is their Christianity.

“We share the same values: Pro-life and we’re not for the homosexual agenda or LGBTQ+,” she said. “Most of these people are Biblical people, most of them are Christians. They have values that align with what God says. There may be some others that don’t, but that’s okay; we love them just as much.”

That generally describes the type of voter and Republican official the Liberty wing of the party is courting as it tries to grow beyond its libertarian-adjacent roots. And there are signs it’s working, with some more established Republicans loosening their grip on the state’s most prominent socially conservative activist groups.

Such is the case with Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville. The Family Foundation recently ranked him as “leans liberal.”

Thomas Jefferson, a self-described Liberty candidate facing Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, gave a relatively short speech to the crowd that emphasized his Christian background alongside the Liberty movement’s focus on school choice.

Jefferson highlighted his service at Southland Christian Church, one of the largest protestant churches in Central Kentucky.

“I want to protect our children, and one of the main things that I want to see go through and I will support 100% is school choice,” he said.

So far, Fuller said she’s really leaning toward Jefferson. She referenced ratings on and as informing her opinion on the matter. Those sites provide materials for “prewritten election sermons” for pastors such as “Mixing Church and State God’s way,” pamphlets on the “Deep state & Communism” in the U.S. government and church PowerPoint slides linking to candidate comparisons from the Family Foundation.

“I love the fact that (Timoney is) Irish, I really do. But I’m saddened that he goes actually more liberal if you look on the scales. He’s more towards the blue, and I could not vote for Timoney because he’s too way out there.”

The Jessamine County GOP itself followed suit, officially endorsing Jefferson and citing Timoney’s Family Foundation ranking.

Timoney attended the event, but left before the speeches began.

The legislator has found himself on the receiving end of stark anti-LGBTQ messaging. One mailer from the political action committee Make Liberty Win insinuated that Timoney was a sex predator. The attack framed his votes against bills banning gender affirming care and participation in women’s sports for trans youth as the “telltale signs of a predator” and called him “groomer Killian.”

On the other side, Timoney has been buoyed by the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC and direct campaign fundraising. The PAC dropped more than $253,000 on Timoney’s race alone, running ads on the lawmaker’s conservative record.

An attack mailer against Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, paid for by Make Liberty Win.
An attack mailer against Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, paid for by Make Liberty Win.

One of the PAC’s biggest funders, Churchill Downs, was a major backer of Timoney’s biggest successful push in 2023: he sponsored a ban on slot-like games popping up in convenience stores known as “gray machines” or “skill games.” The ban was a boost to Churchill Downs and other horse racing tracks, which have been operating slot-like historical horse racing machines for years.

Though Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action has yet to report who is funding it, many in Kentucky politics speculate that the “gray machines” companies may play a role. Spokespeople for the largest operation in the state and a political group formed last year to advocate for them didn’t respond.

Though Timoney didn’t speak at the Jessamine County event, Rep. Kim King, R-Harrodsburg, who defeated a Liberty-backed candidate in 2022, did.

She listed off a number of conservative accomplishments passed by the legislature since Republicans took full control in response to “Libertarians” dissing the direction of the Republican supermajorities.

King mentioned conservative budgeting, Senate Bill 150, gun rights legislation and more. She then blamed Libertarians, who she said “intentionally blew” the 2019 governor’s race for former GOP governor Matt Bevin in his loss to Beshear by running a candidate in 2019 that siphoned some Republican support away from Bevin.

“Those ol’ Libertarians are the Republicans’ biggest nightmare,” King said. “They are the actual RINOs and the biggest scourge to conservative decisions here in Kentucky.”