GOP candidates make their cases at Lincoln Day Dinner

Published 3:17 pm Sunday, April 16, 2023

Former Arkansas Governor and 2024 Presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Southern Kentucky Lincoln Day Dinner on Friday, April 14, 2023, at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky. Hutchinson, who also served as a senior official in former President George W. Bush’s administration and in Congress before his two terms as Arkansas governor, has joined former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy as candidates for the GOP nomination for president in 2024. (Grace Ramey/

At the Warren County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner at the National Corvette Museum, the five leading candidates to be the GOP standard bearer in the race to unseat Gov. Andy Beshear took aim not at each other so much as at the Democratic incumbent.

“We should have one goal in 2023: to make Andy Beshear a one-term governor,” said State Auditor Mike Harmon, one of 12 candidates vying for the Republican nomination for governor in the May primary election and one of the five speaking Friday.

All five — Harmon, former United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck — touted their own conservative credentials as a contrast to Beshear’s perceived progressivism.

Even keynote speaker and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson joined the chorus in singing the praises of conservative values as a way to unseat Beshear.

“I can’t speak to the dynamics of the race as a whole,” Hutchinson said in an interview after the event, “but if one of these candidates brings a strong conservative message I think they’ll be very competitive.”

Hutchinson, who also served in Congress before his two terms as Arkansas governor, is involved in a competition of his own now that he has joined former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy as candidates for the GOP nomination for president in 2024.

Hutchinson, a frequent critic of Trump who even called for the former president to drop out of the 2024 race after his indictment by a New York grand jury on charges of falsifying business records, expects only a few more candidates to enter the GOP presidential race.

“I think it will be a narrower field than 2016 (when 17 Republicans fought it out),” he said. “It will be more like eight.

“Trump is not the standard bearer. He’s out of office, and I don’t consider him the leader of our party. We’re fighting for new leadership.”

As is the Kentucky GOP, which has experienced huge success in winning super majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and in winning every statewide office except governor and lieutenant governor.

State Rep. Michael Meredith, who served as master of ceremonies at the Lincoln Day Dinner, summed up his party’s goal this year.

“It’s time for Kentucky to be a completely red state,” he said to the delight of the 320 or so Republicans packed into the museum’s conference room. “We have the opportunity to change Kentucky forever in this election.

“We have every state office except governor and lieutenant governor. We need to make it happen in November.”

It won’t be easy. Although Kentucky has been trending red for years and now has more registered Republicans than Democrats, Beshear continues to get high approval ratings for his handling of the state’s economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beshear also polls well against potential Republican opponents. Who that opponent will be, though, remains very much in doubt.

Cameron, buoyed by support from Trump and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, had a big lead in a January Mason-Dixon poll; but Craft has cut into that lead with a well-funded campaign that has often taken aim at Cameron.

A survey by Emerson College and Lexington station WDKY released last week shows Cameron now getting the support of 30% of likely GOP voters and Craft garnering 24%. Quarles is third at 15%.

Cameron pointed to his battles with Beshear over vaccine mandates and shutdowns of schools, businesses and churches during the pandemic as evidence that he’s the right person for the job.

Sporting a bright red dress as visible testament to her right-wing bona fides, Craft tried to paint herself as the right choice for conservatives, seizing on hot-button issues like education and illegal drugs as she has in her advertising.

“My first official act as governor will be to dismantle the state Department of Education,” she said. “I will get rid of the ‘woke’ education commissioner (Jason) Glass.”

Not to be outflanked to the right, Quarles described himself as a “defender of the second amendment who is pro-life” and said he believes “it’s wrong to let boys play in girls’ sports.”

He also criticized Beshear’s handling of the pandemic, saying: “He kept our kids out of classrooms longer than was necessary. Going through a pandemic doesn’t mean our rights can be tossed out the window.”

Quarles also portrayed himself as the candidate with the best chance to beat Beshear, based on his showing in the 2019 race for agriculture commissioner in which he took 58% of the vote and carried 117 of the state’s 120 counties.

“We need to elect a candidate who can beat Beshear,” Quarles said.

Keck touted his record during four years as Somerset’s mayor and his background as an entrepreneur.

“I’m an executive who knows how to get things done,” Keck said. “I want to solve our state’s workforce participation problem and invest in mental health, trade schools and school choice.”

Harmon, who served in the Kentucky House of Representatives for 13 years before being elected auditor, called himself “the most experienced” of the candidates for governor.

Like his fellow candidates, Harmon portrayed himself as the type of strong conservative needed to unseat Beshear, who he said “focused on fear over freedom” during the pandemic.

Whoever wins the May primary, Harmon said, needs support from every Republican.

“There are 12 in the race, and they’re all my friends,” Harmon said. “Any one of us would be better than the current governor.”