Top GOP candidates sit for wide-ranging debate

Published 4:06 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Two weeks before Republican voters head to the polls for the primary election, the top candidates gathered for a final joint debate.

The Monday night Kentucky Educational Television debate was moderated by Renee Shaw.

Each candidate has chosen a distinct lane in the race.

Frontrunner and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron is running on his experience as attorney general, which has involved suing Gov. Andy Beshear to end vaccine mandates during COVID, as well as keeping abortion facilities closed.

Kelly Craft, former United Nations and Canada ambassador under the Trump administration, is closing the gap on Cameron, according to some polls. Craft has taken the national GOP lane, focusing on trending Republican issues like “woke education.”

Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles, solidly in third place, has touted his grassroots campaign, traveling across the state and receiving endorsements from over 230 elected officials, including county judge-executives, magistrates and state legislators. Monday night, he called himself a “consensus builder” who would unite urban and rural Kentucky.

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck is taking a less traditional path to the governorship, as a former businessman in the private sector. He said he wants to bring his experience growing Somerset’s economy to the rest of the state.

Eric Deters, a suspended attorney, said he’s the non-career politician of the group. His campaign is “basically less government, more freedom,” he said. Deters spent most of the night spreading misinformation, falsely saying that the pandemic was “phony,” the 2020 election was stolen, the January 6 insurrection was “much ado about nothing” and that Craft doesn’t have Kentucky residency.

The 90-minute debate covered a variety of topics, from the economy to education. It also included more than a few heated exchanges.

The Cameron-Craft War

As the two frontrunners, Cameron and Craft —and the super PACs supporting them – have launched attack ads at each other in the past month.

Commonwealth PAC, which supports Craft, has broadcast ads calling Cameron a “soft, establishment teddy bear” who is not a strong enough conservative for Kentucky.

Bluegrass Freedom Action, a PAC supporting Cameron, fought back with an ad labeling Craft “desperate” after losing the Donald Trump endorsement to Cameron.

The fight continued on air Monday night. Craft took the first shot, censuring Cameron for saying he “appreciated” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland coming to Louisville with his “woke” Department of Justice after an investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department found multiple offenses.

“What does that say about backing the blue?” Craft said.

Cameron responded that Craft was “naive” to think he could keep Garland and the DOJ out of Louisville, and that he has received over 100 law enforcement endorsements, while Craft has gotten only one officer to publicly support her.

A few minutes later, Craft brought up donations to Cameron’s campaign from Pace-O-Matic, a gray machine company that is now suing the state for a gray machine ban the legislature passed this year. As attorney general, Cameron’s office defends the Commonwealth in these kinds of lawsuits.

Craft asked why Cameron hadn’t refunded the donations. Cameron said he recused himself from the lawsuit, but did not say why the Pace-O-Matic donations to his personal campaign were not refunded.

In a final attack, Cameron told Craft that she has her own issues with campaign finance. Her husband, coal billionaire Joe Craft, donated $1.5 million to Commonwealth PAC. Campaign finance rules forbid coordination between candidates and PACs, so it would be illegal for Kelly Craft to have been involved.

Craft said to leave her husband out of it, and later, that she was not aware of his contribution.

“Men for decades, for decades, have been talking about strong women. And let me tell you, I’ve been sitting at kitchen tables with strong women,” Craft said. “… They’re not asking about my husband.“

The economy and education

The candidates shared some of their key budget priorities.

Keck would focus on tourism, heritage and arts, like he’s done in Somerset, and “lean into what makes the state so special.”

Quarles had a few key points, including returning coal severance taxes to counties, eliminating the death or estate tax and enacting a pro-business growth tax code, including by continuing the stepping down to zero of the state income tax. He said he would be open to allowing local option sales taxes.

Craft said she would lean on her trade deal experience as ambassador, which she said brought thousands of jobs to the U.S. instead of outsourcing to China.

Cameron, alongside the others, spoke out against Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid for dental, vision and hearing care, saying that able-bodied Kentuckians shouldn’t be eligible without a work requirement.

When the education conversation rolled around, all said they wanted to get rid of current Education Commissioner Jason Glass, who they have labeled as “woke” for guidelines on addressing children with gender identities that differ from their biological sex.

Shaw pointed out that according to Kentucky law, the governor does not have the authority to fire the education commissioner, contrary to Craft’s promise to “dismantle the Department of Education” and fire Glass on her inauguration day.

The governor also can no longer reorganize the board of education, which selects the education commissioner, via an executive order upon their inauguration. After Beshear did this in 2019, the legislature made it illegal.

As far as other educational issues, Quarles said that Kentucky should reform its higher education, something that has not been done since 1997.

“We need to make sure that the cost of education is affordable and that our educational programs are aligned with what employers are looking for,” he said.

He suggested doing so by prioritizing vocational schools, among other measures.

Keck proposed shortening the length of higher education to reduce costs, and expressed support for school choice.

All hinted that they would be open to raising teacher salaries, but only as part of the bigger puzzle. Cameron said that he’d like 5% pay raises, similar to a failed Beshear initiative. Shaw asked how he would succeed.

“The problem that Andy Beshear has, and the reason that he has done nothing of consequence in his first term is the point that a lot of us have been making today,” he said. “He has absolutely no relationships with the legislature.”

The primary election will be held on May 16, 2023.

– Follow regional reporter Sarah Michels on Twitter @sarah_michels13 or visit