Trump , Cruz, DeSantis & more: What KY governor candidates, voters said ahead of primary

On Sunday night, Daniel Cameron made a phone call. On the other line: several Kentucky GOP voters and Donald Trump.

The former Republican president, who’s running again in 2024, implored voters who dialed into the Cameron campaign’s ‘tele-rally’ to support Cameron. Far from the quirky, at times rambling, rally speeches Trump is known for, he took just five minutes to list off reasons to vote for Cameron. Among those reasons: he said Cameron is best suited to beat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in the fall.

“In fact, in 2019, Daniel got 100,000 more votes for Attorney General than Beshear got for governor. That’s a good sign. I think he’s the one person who can really, really do a job. But if you want to beat the radical Democrats, get out and vote for Daniel on Tuesday. So important,” Trump said.

On Monday night, a man seen as Trump’s top competition for the GOP presidential nomination, though he’s yet to announce a run for president, made a call of his own. A robocall of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsing Former ambassador Kelly Craft for governor hit phones that night.

“Kelly shares the same vision we do in Florida. She will stand up to the left as they try to indoctrinate our children with their ‘woke’ ideology,” DeSantis said in the audio, also mentioning coal and the fentanyl crisis. “... Vote for my friend Kelly Craft and get Kentucky on the path to becoming a free state like Florida.”

The calls came around the same time as Cameron received good news. A poll from Emerson College and WDKY/Fox 56 surfaced that showed him with a strong lead over the rest of the pack, just a month after the same pollster released one showing the race tightening. Relatedly, the poll showed that Trump’s popularity among Kentucky GOP voters was extremely high, with more than 70% of voters preferring him in his 2024 reelection campaign to just 14% for second-place DeSantis.

Cameron and groups supporting his candidacy have often reminded voters of his Trump endorsement.

Though the results for Trump in Kentucky show he’s popular among Republicans, Trump has made headlines of late for negative reasons. He was recently found liable in civil court for sexual abuse and defamation. Cameron didn’t have much to say on the matter when asked about it on Friday at an event.

“I appreciate President Trump’s endorsement... All I know is it was a civil case and I think they might be appealing it, but at the end of the day I’m focused on Kentucky,” Cameron said.

Some Cameron voters are also drawn to the attorney general’s record on law and order. Delvin Azofeifa, a teacher in Lexington who lives in Frankfort, said he’s supporting Cameron because he thinks the politician will take the state’s drug crisis seriously.

“We have a national opioid epidemic, and I feel like he’s going to actually put forth some real action in trying to nip it in the bud at an early level instead of letting this just continue unchecked,” Azofeifa said.

Other top GOP candidates spent their last hours in ways that reflected their overall campaign strategy as well.

Craft, in an appearance with major U.S. political figures, focused on national issues. Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles focused on quantity of campaign stops and grassroots support.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron takes photos with supporters at Goodwood Brewing in Frankfort
Attorney General Daniel Cameron takes photos with supporters at Goodwood Brewing in Frankfort

Craft & Cruz

Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blared over loudspeakers as more than 200 people squeezed into a barn at the University Club in Richmond. The stage was bare for a moment, the crowd roaring in anticipation of the arrival of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Cruz, known for his 2016 presidential campaign and high-profile status in the U.S. Senate, took the stage for a lecture on the state of the nation crossed with a stump speech for Craft crossed with a comedy routine. His speech lasted nearly 30 minutes.

Cruz joked that inflation was so bad “Hunter Biden can’t afford crack cocaine,” and asked if he could put up money for a “one on one cage match between (Kentucky U.S. Senator) Rand Paul and Dr. (Anthony) Fauci.” In terms of political topics, Cruz focused on the border, U.S.-China relations, COVID-19 and inflation.

He also made an impassioned plea for voters to support Craft, whom he called a “velvet hammer” who would smile while protecting the people of Kentucky.

Craft’s speech hit many of the political beats presented in her series of television ads: the border, tackling the drug crisis, and education among others. She also worked to further her branding as a political outsider.

“I’m not a career politician. I’m not owned by anyone, so it’s freedom. You will not see the Washington establishment in my office, you will see God in my office,” Craft.

Also speaking at the event were Craft’s lieutenant governor running mate State Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, State Rep. Bill Wesley, R-Ravenna, who is a paid consultant to the campaign, and Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Patrol Council.

Another high-profile name backing Craft: Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman running for the GOP nomination for president. Ramaswamy has drawn attention for his proposal to raise the voting age to 25 and speaking against so-called “woke” culture of the American left.

One Craft voter, Mike Blackard, said just after early voting at Kroger Field in Lexington that he was drawn to Craft for her messaging against “woke” ideology, something highlighted by a recent television advertisement.

Blackard, 64, said he was also tired of only white male attorneys seeking the governor’s chair. Cameron, who is Black, was his second choice, but said he “didn’t really say anything” to raise himself in Blackard’s estimation.

He liked that Craft seemed different from the norm, comparing her favorably to former Democratic governor – and first woman governor in the state – Martha Layne Collins.

“Every time we get a lawyer for a governor, he and the state attorney just spend all the time suing each other. That’s all they do,” Blackard said.

Quarles getting around

Quarles has focused on the quantity of stops and events in the immediate lead-up to the election.

In three days, Quarles’ team lined up 23 different events in 22 counties. Kroger Field was one of the stops, where Quarles rallied his Fayette County supporters. He said, being from Central Kentucky, that he thinks he has a shot of carrying the county which accounted for close to 7% of the vote in the last contested GOP primary.

“I think our performance in rural counties early in the night is going to be an indicator about how we’re going to perform but I feel really good in Eastern Kentucky and I feel great in Far West Kentucky,” Quarles said. “With Central Kentucky, my name ID’s a lot higher and people know me.”

Quarles, in a speech to a crowd of about 20 supporters outside the football stadium, focused on the folksier, “old school” elements of his campaign, like the fact that he secured more than 235 local elected official endorsements and that he’s visited far-flung parts of the state.

“I’ve spent a year of my life traveling to all 120 counties, and countless Dollar General Stores along the way, listening to Kentuckians about what matters most,” Quarles said. “I think that we have the best shot to beat Andy Beshear this Fall.”

Tom Hern, a 74 year-old retired executive from Lexington, told the Herald-Leader that he voted for Quarles in part because he knew him. Hern has run for local office in Fayette County before and is currently on the executive board of the Fayette County Republican Party.

“I’ve known Ryan for eight years. As agriculture commissioner, he’s done a great job. He’s helped promote Kentucky products, and I think he’d make a great governor because I think he has all the skills necessary,” Hern said.

Other Republicans are making their final pushes, too.

Northern Kentucky conservative activist Eric Deters, who has twice come in a clear fourth place in recent polling, has taken a social media-centric approach. Deters has regularly posted videos of his debate performances, his own internet talk show and more leading up to the primary. Some observers have noted that Deters’ brand of Trump-inflected bombast has helped him climb above other lesser-known candidates.

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck announced that he would campaign for 24 hours straight starting Monday morning and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, with stops at Louisville and Lexington 24-hour restaurants.

Commissioner of Agriculture rallies support in front of Kroger Field for his campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination
Commissioner of Agriculture rallies support in front of Kroger Field for his campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination

Beshear’s primary

Plenty of voters showed up at Kroger Field on Thursday to make certain that Gov. Andy Beshear would be the Democrat to make it onto the general election, as his team has already been prepping his re-election campaign. He’s running against perennial candidate Geoff Young, who won the Democratic nomination for Sixth Congressional District representative last year but lost in the general, and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Peppy Martin.

Voters’ reasons for supporting Beshear varied, but all of those interviewed by the Herald-Leader mentioned his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Diane Seale, a 69 year-old retiree in Lexington, said she liked “everything” about Beshear.

“I thought he was the answer to our prayers during COVID, and I can’t imagine if anyone else had been our governor,” Seale said.

Walter Graham, 85, is a retired nonprofit worker who said Beshear has been “a very effective person.”

“He’s particularly been effective in bringing business into the state, and he’s done a good job with the environmental problems that we’ve had both in the western part of the state in the eastern part of the state,” Graham said.

Graham, who is blind, went to the polls with his caretaker Kelley Eckmann, who also voted for Beshear and noted his “compassion.”