Who are the ‘Liberty’ Republicans in Kentucky politics? What do they want?

Spend enough time in Kentucky politics and it won’t be long before you hear this word: Liberty.

It’s practically the word of the month. And the ideology behind it is central to the most contentious and expensive GOP primary battles this month.

But what does “Liberty” mean?

Libertarian? Not exactly.

Far Right? Sort of.

Trump-supporting? Mostly, but that doesn’t really define it.

Populist? There’s a healthy dose of that.

As it currently exists, Liberty Republicans in Kentucky are a loosely organized network of politicians’ intent on pushing the already-conservative state legislature further to the right. It’s not really libertarianism, though the two are often confused.

Some are hot to slash state spending like libertarians; others display a stricter adherence to traditional, largely Christian, social norms; one faction is frustrated with the state’s healthcare policy on COVID-19 and other regulations, and many align themselves against some of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state, like the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

What most binds the Liberty movement together is a deep dissatisfaction with the current trajectory of the Republican state legislature.

Their politics aren’t uniform. But that’s more of a feature than a bug, according to 66th District state representative candidate T.J. Roberts, an attorney who worked as a political operative for many of Liberty candidates before running himself.

“There’s differences of opinion in terms of what ‘Liberty’ is, and as a result there really isn’t much of a central, overarching being that defines it,” Roberts said. “That’s actually not a bug; I think that’s a benefit. You have people who are generally aligned going about and choosing their own focuses.”

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Generally speaking, their beliefs are strongly held. Liberty candidate platforms are increasingly situated against perceived pressure of indoctrination, be it the federal government, widely-accepted social norms or the Republican Party itself, to do something they believe is intrinsically un-American or anti-Christian.

Roughly a dozen races across Kentucky pit Liberty against other Republicans. It’s the most consequential political battle in the state legislature: over the heart of the GOP caucuses, which have near-complete control over policy-making with majorities more than capable of overriding Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes.

The money has followed the consequence of this political battle.

All told, outside groups alone could spend more than $2 million on roughly a dozen GOP primaries where turnout is notoriously low. Churchill Downs, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and the Kentucky Hospital Association are among the top funders of the biggest spender this cycle, Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC. That group alone has dropped close to $1 million fighting against Liberty candidates, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

On both sides of the internecine GOP fight, political action committees have already spent more than $1.7 million.

Who are ‘Liberty’ politicians?

From the Liberty GOP’s perspective, their wing of the party is the one that’s true to the party platform while leadership represents an old guard moderate style of Republicanism still working off the muscle memory of when it had to compromise with Democrats to get things done.

“There’s not a single Liberty legislator who served in the minority,” Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, said. “We are traditional Republicans. We’re getting back to the basics of what conservatives are. You have a bunch of folks who served in the minority who had to compromise with Democrats.

“Now we’re at 80 (of 100 House seats), and we’ve got to find a way to let conservatives lead, not the Chamber of Commerce.”

House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, and Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge discuss a bill on the House floor.
House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Middletown, Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, and Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge discuss a bill on the House floor.

They also believe the party relies too heavily on entrenched interest groups like the ones aligned against them via political action committees.

“Most Liberty candidates feel their viewpoints on these topics are representative of a majority of their constituents, but systematically suppressed by many members of current Republican leadership, which view actual conservative values on other topics as a distraction too controversial, or not cosmopolitan enough, for their true business consistency,” Lance Pearson, president of the Kentucky Liberty Caucus, said.

And as much as Liberty is a platform or an ideology, it’s also something of a project: to bind together the social conservatives and the libertarian-leaning wing against so-called “establishment” conservatives.

How many Liberty GOP lawmakers are there? In the House, it depends on how you count.

While some see about eight total House members — those who signed onto a letter supporting significant rule changes at the start of the 2024 General Assembly — as the true tally of Liberty legislators, others point to the 34 representatives that voted with Irvington Republican Rep. Josh Calloway during his 2023 roll call push to force a vote on “parental rights” conservative legislation.

“If the opportunity availed itself, I think there’d be more than just a few people looking at the potential of maybe going in a different direction,” Calloway said of other legislators joining the Liberty movement.

The numbers in the House are fluid, with some in the socially conservative wing often called the “Preacher Caucus” — many members are practicing Christian preachers — playing as a swing vote.

In the Senate, whose own Liberty wing has been less combative, the lines are less clear. Liberty GOP organizations generally support a handful of its members, including Northern Kentucky Senator Gex Williams, R-Verona; Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield; and Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg.

Increasingly, the state’s biggest social conservative groups are siding with Liberty legislators, sometimes over powerful incumbents. The Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Policy Center have mostly rated Liberty candidates as more conservative or compared them to their GOP opponents favorably in the most contentious races. Kentucky Right to Life has done the same in some instances, even endorsing Michael Meredith’s opponent despite his “100% ProLife voting record.”

The Liberty wing’s detractors say they’re more interested in posturing than governing.

Tres Watson, a former spokesperson for the Republican Party of Kentucky, is running a political action committee, Common Sense KY, that’s working against a handful of Liberty candidates.

“I would take umbrage with them calling themselves ‘Liberty,’” Watson said. “I don’t think that’s what they are because a lot of their policies are very populist and a lot of their policies infringe on liberty and property rights when it comes to businesses.”

Watson asks: how much more do they want?

“How much is there out there that they haven’t been able to get through? I guess they’d want further crackdowns on transgender and homosexual rights? They successfully beat back attempts to get exceptions into the abortion laws, the school choice amendment is on the ballot.

“You reach a point where it’s less about the policy and more about being personally aggrieved and being out for vengeance.”

A definition of ‘Liberty’

So how exactly do they define themselves policy-wise?

Fourth Congressional District Rep. Thomas Massie, a contrarian conservative firebrand who allies with many Liberty state representatives and senators in Northern Kentucky and beyond, took a crack it.

Drawing a contrast with the U.S. House’s infamous Freedom Caucus, which includes bomb-throwers and staunch Trump loyalists like Lauren Boebert and Byron Donalds, he said Liberty Republicans were certainly Trump voters, but “it’s more about principles than it is a cult of personality for them.”

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., leaves the chamber after Rep. John Rose, R-Tenn., a freshman from Cookeville, Tenn., blocked a unanimous consent vote during a scheduled pro forma session of the House on a long-awaited $19 billion disaster aid bill in the chamber, Thursday, May 30, 2019. Massie and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, have both blocked passage of the measure in the past week. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

He said what defines Liberty in Kentucky is an adherence to the Second Amendment, limited government, deregulation of agriculture, freedom of speech, “school choice” — the movement to allow public dollars to flow to non-public and charter schools — and anti-monopoly policies.

Disdain for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, one of the most consequential senators in U.S. history, is also a uniting force. Twenty county parties in Kentucky, many of them led by self-identifying Liberty Republicans, have censured McConnell for being allegedly too moderate. Just last week, Campbell County’s Republican party joined them, becoming one of the largest counties to do so.

John Cox, a Bell County native and insurance agent who has become a regular at the Capitol as a citizen activist and lobbyist for Liberty causes alongside Pearson, played a role in pushing for the passage of Senate Bill 150 last year, a bill that banned gender-affirming care for all Kentucky minors. That bill drew sharp criticism from LGBTQ+ organizations and praise from social conservative advocacy groups.

But Cox said a hallmark of Liberty Republicanism is thinking outside the box and being less of a “cookie cutter” Republican. That means not always toeing the party line.

For instance, he’s not so sure if he’ll support this year’s school choice amendment, which will be on the ballot this November, as it passed. Cox worked with legislators to change it somewhat, but the final product excluded what he wanted: constitutional language that ensured school choice would prioritize parents “of limited financial means.”

“All the accusations that opponents are going to throw against it, I don’t know how we refute them,” Cox said. “There’s no safeguards in the language at all to be able to refute them, that it’s just gonna pay for rich kids to go to private schools.”

But Liberty politicos come in different shapes and sizes.

“There are factions within the faction,” as Cox put it.

Some Liberty politicians have also pursued policies around vaccines and elections informed by disproven theories, such as the falsehood that former president Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election and that COVID-19 vaccines are “ineffective.”

Among the voting population, Andrew Cooperrider, who finished second in the 2023 GOP primary for state treasurer, said that their wing of the party was in something of a tug-of-war with more establishment Republicans.

“What you have is the 20-ish percent of the base that’s the type to tie themselves to McConnell, 20% of the base that’s highly informed, and 60% of the base that doesn’t know all the time who’s right or wrong,” he said. “In prior elections pre-COVID, that 60% was inclined to believe the incumbents and caring more what the party thinks. After COVID, more people are paying attention.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, used another estimated percentage statistic. He didn’t name them, but he said that some Republicans violated a rule of late GOP President Ronald Reagan: “The person who agrees with you 80% of the time is an 80% friend and not a 20% enemy.”

Thayer said he’s supporting “normal” Republicans this cycle in a recent KET interview, a comment that raised some eyebrows in Liberty circles. He’s supporting a candidate for his replacement, Matt Nunn, over a Liberty-backed candidate in Julia Jaddock.

“I want to help elect Republicans who are problem-solvers. There are a handful of people who look at the fire and they want to fan the flames and even add fuel to the fire,” Thayer said. “We’re all mad at the state of things in our country right now and we all have different personalities and different ways of dealing with it. I think trying to solve the problems, the serious problems, remains the ultimate goal.”

Kentucky state Sen. Damon Thayer, R- Georgetown, looks over a document in the Senate chambers at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Kentucky state Sen. Damon Thayer, R- Georgetown, looks over a document in the Senate chambers at the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Monday, April 15, 2024.

In Frankfort

The most prominent Liberty GOP legislators are treated differently in Frankfort. Many of them say they’re suppressed while others would argue they’re catered to more than less vocal rank-and-file members.

Take Calloway, for instance. In his case, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

He was formally reprimanded in 2023 after forcing a roll call vote on several floor amendments to a bill that would “protect children” via socially conservative legislation, including adding a ban on public drag performances, giving parents significantly more control over what their children can learn in schools, and more.

Yet, his ideas often find a way of getting into the final product. Such was the case this year, as he fought to mandate age verification for viewing pornographic websites.

He said the effort was dead until the final day before the veto break. Then he helped broker a deal regarding Senate Bill 2, a priority school safety bill he’d attempted to amend to allow public schools to hire “pastoral counselors,” and a House Bill that was recently amended to require age verification.

“We were like — I won’t use the word ‘threatened’ — but they wanted Senate Bill 2 bad. I kept being asked, ‘please, will you not call your amendment?’ ... Finally, about eight o’clock that evening I was taken off the floor and asked, ‘What would you have to get in order to not call your amendment?’ I said ‘House Bill 278.’”

Both Senate Bill 2, without Calloway’s amendment, and House Bill 278 passed that night.

It’s often bumpy sailing for others hoisting the Liberty banner on some of the movement’s marquee issues.

Rep. Marianne Proctor, R-Union, has been the leading voice for reform of the certificate of need process in regulating medical care in the state. Proponents argue its a lifeline for several hospitals while detractors like Proctor and the libertarian-leaning group Americans for Prosperity say it’s anti-free market.

She’d spent all of this year’s session, and much of the interim, focused on the issue, with hospital groups lobbying hard against certain bills reforming the existing system.

Well into the legislative session, a bill of hers on certificate of need got a hearing. Two catches: Proctor was only informed late on the day before it was heard via a lobbyist, not the committee chair, and it wasn’t the bill she’d rallied support for much of the session.

“The goal was to try and embarrass me and humiliate me, which it didn’t,” Proctor said. The bill failed in committee by a wide margin.

Then there is the budget.

Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Pendleton, led one of the Liberty wing’s biggest pushes this past session: to amend the rules in a way that would have allowed every member to force a vote “priority bill” of their choosing.

Louisville Public Media reported that the chair of the House transportation committee during a caucus meeting mentioned pulling funding from the vital Brent Spence Bridge project in Northern Kentucky, in a reference to the regional hotbed for Liberty legislators. But what about Rabourn’s actual district?

Her home of Henry County, which she shares with another legislator supported by Liberty GOP organizations in Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, received the lowest amount of road fund dollars per capita by a wide margin, per a Herald-Leader analysis. No allocations in the major $2.7 billion-plus one-time spending bill were in Rabourn’s district, either.

Rabourn didn’t respond to a Herald-Leader question about this. House GOP spokesperson Laura Leigh Goins pointed out that road project funding “fluctuates” every two-year budget cycle, adding that Henry County saw much more funding in 2022.

Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R- Turners Station, comments during a discussion of perspectives on critical race theory in the Interim Joint Committee on Education in July 2021.
Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R- Turners Station, comments during a discussion of perspectives on critical race theory in the Interim Joint Committee on Education in July 2021.

A change coming?

Though having a working relationship with leadership is advantageous for most any legislator trying to get things done in Frankfort, many in the Liberty movement think that the next big step is to get one of their own in one of the GOP’s 10 leadership positions across both chambers

“There’s going to have to be a penetration of getting someone in leadership. That’s not even to say I dislike anyone in leadership, but nothing gets through without the people in leadership signing off on it,” Cox said.

“They’re gonna have to share some leadership spots.”

The goal becomes more achievable should more Liberty GOP candidates gain ground in primaries this cycle.

Massie is playing a role in that expansion of the Liberty movement.

Alongside the most visible Liberty House members, Massie’s political action committee donated to Rep. Bill Wesley, R-Ravenna, a rural preacher who pushed specifically for Kentucky’s ban on transgender children using the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

On the other side supporting his challenger, Powell County businessman Darrell Billings: the chamber and Kentucky Congressmen Andy Barr and James Comer.

“The main reason I’m helping out Bill Wesley is the other people I’m helping out see him as an ally,” Massie told the Herald-Leader. “If the group of people I’m helping and trust say ‘this is somebody you should help,’ then I generally help them. But he’s one that I don’t know personally.”

Cooperrider sees this year’s races as a major opportunity for expansion — new legislators coming in alongside current ones they could get to move over to their side.

Cooperrider thinks there could be a domino effect if the movement knocks off prominent legislators like Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, and Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Heath, R-Mayfield.

If they lose, it could signal to other legislators to fall in with the Liberty crowd.

“That sends a message, right, of ‘Look, it’s not just a Northern Kentucky thing.’ Cooperridder said. “If they show that other people get knocked off, well now it’s a real problem.”

It would show, Cooperrider said, that “the real threat does not come from (Speaker of the House David) Osborne, it does not come from (Senate President Robert) Stivers, it comes from the ‘Liberty’ wing of the party.”