Despite spending millions, Kelly Craft places third

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected].

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Despite spending nearly $11 million in a Kentucky Republican primary and having one of the most high-profile national political consultants working on her campaign, Kelly Craft lost her bid to win the Republican nomination and instead placed third.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron will now face Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear in the general election. 

The plan brought to Kentucky by Craft and Axiom Strategies worked in Virginia on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s campaign but failed to resonate with Kentuckians and led Craft to finished third behind Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

One main talking point throughout Craft’s campaign was the education system in Kentucky, specifically addressing “woke” ideologies and critical race theory.

Craft’s campaign, which spent more than $4 million on TV and radio ads through AxMedia, a division of Axiom Strategies — a national political consulting firm — launched an ad in April that featured “woke bureaucrats” parachuting into a school to teach critical race theory. Further, a teacher with a nose ring requests a student to use her pronouns.

“Our schools are under attack,” Craft says in the ad. “Woke bureaucrats parachuting in to hijack our children’s future, forcing woke ideology into the classroom — it’s immoral. I’m Kelly Craft, and as governor, I’ll dismantle the Department of Education and start fresh.” 

But, Youngkin was able to come in on the back of President Joe Biden’s win and tap into the backlash along with the themes emerging from that victory, such as “wokeness,” according to Ryan Salzman, Northern Kentucky University political professor. That wasn’t the case for Craft. 

“Kelly Craft tried to key on that, but that’s a tough place to break through in a primary with those kinds of arguments,” Salzman said, though he noted she did a good job getting her name out there. 

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Instead, Cameron’s name recognition and having already won statewide races worked well for the Elizabethtown native, according to Salzman. 

“People who have already won statewide races have a certain level of name recognition, even if we don’t think about the Attorney General as being as popular as the governor,” Salzman said. “He’s already been voted for multiple times.” 

Both candidates spent the weekend ahead of the primary holding rallies with Washington political figures. 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, stumped for Craft in two Get Out the Vote Rallies last Saturday. 

Former President Donald Trump held a tele-rally with Cameron — the race’s frontrunner — last Sunday. 

“He’s pledged to fire the communist radicals trying to destroy Kentucky’s education system, and he will get critical race theory out of children’s classrooms,” Trump said.

On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is expected to announce his bid for president — endorsed Craft.

This led many to think that the race in Kentucky could also be a bellwether for the Republican nominee for president, with Trump and DeSantis. 

“You’ve had a woke liberal governor that’s put a radical agenda ahead of Kentuckians,” 

DeSantis said in the recorded clip distributed via robocall.

“I’m strongly encouraging you to go out and vote for my friend, Kelly Craft,” said DeSantis.

In an Emerson College poll, Trump is polling at 70%, leading DeSantis by 56 points in Kentucky. With both GOP presidential hopefuls endorsing candidates, it could serve as a proxy for the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

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However, the timing of the DeSantis endorsement gave little opportunity for it to impact the ballot box, according to Salzman.

“The former president will take it as a win, and the national coverage will probably say the same,” Salzman said “It continues DeSantis’ recent struggles in the race for the White House.”

In his acceptance speech, Cameron acknowledged Trump’s influence on the race. 

“Let me just say, the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky,” Cameron said.

Cameron dominates Northern Kentucky 

Former Gov. Matt Bevin cruised to victory in 2015 and received a strong showing in Northern Kentucky.

In Kenton County, he received 56% of the vote, and in Campbell County, 54%.

In 2019, Beshear flipped both Campbell and Kenton counties. In Campbell, Beshear received 52% of the vote, and 49.5% in Kenton County.

But, politics in Northern Kentucky shifted after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Northern Kentucky attorney Chris Wiest noted a significant shift in state politics in 2022 when three prominent NKY state House Reps. Adam Koenig, Ed Massey, and Sal Santoro lost their primary races to liberty-aligned candidates and current Reps. Steve Doan (R-Erlanger), Steve Rawlings (R-Burlington), and Marianne Proctor (R-Union). 

Wiest spoke in Boone County last summer when liberty-aligned Rep. Savannah Maddox (R-Dry Ridge) announced her gubernatorial bid. Maddox dropped out of the race, and Wiest threw his support behind Cameron — someone Wiest said he’s worked with on fighting Beshear’s office over COVID-19 shutdowns and Biden lawsuits. 

“I don’t think we get people that have walked the walk elsewhere in this field,” Wiest said last month. 

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At a campaign event in April, Cameron said that Beshear is out of step with Northern Kentuckians, and the showing he received in Northern Kentucky might indicate how well Cameron’s message resonated in the region. 

On Tuesday night, Cameron won Boone County with 48% of the vote, Campbell with 44%, and Kenton with 45%. 

“Cameron is coming out of the primary hot,” Salzman said. “His win was strong enough to reset a lot of people’s expectations.”

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