Secretary Michael Adams wins primary, faces Buddy Wheatley in general election

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

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Secretary of State Michael Adams defeated former Erlanger City Councilman Stephen Knipper in the Republican primary Tuesday and will now face former Northern Kentucky state House Rep. Charles “Buddy” Wheatley in the general election. 

The election between Adams and Wheatley will be hotly contested, and one of the race’s main talking points could be voting locations and issues in Kenton County. 

Adams handily defeated Knipper — who claims widespread election fraud throughout the commonwealth — in the statewide race. Still, Knipper won two Northern Kentucky counties, perhaps signaling that some parts of the Republican party in Northern Kentucky side with his thoughts on election impropriety. 

Knipper previously served as chief of staff for former Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton. In the days since serving in that administration, he’s launched the Restore Election Integrity Tour with Sen. Adrienne Southworth (R-Anderson). 

The tour travels the state spreading false allegations that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump and there are widespread issues with the election system in Kentucky. 

Knipper supported former state senate candidate Jessica Neal in her recount efforts last summer. However, when Knipper testified under oath, he said there weren’t any issues in Neal’s election. 

Days later, Knipper appeared on a TV show with Mike Lindell — the MyPillow CEO — and said that there were significant issues in the recount in Campbell County. 

This led Campbell County Judge Daniel Zalla to issue an opinion that what Knipper says publicly differs drastically from what he says under oath. 

Knipper’s ideas have traction in Northern Kentucky, though, specifically in Boone County. The Boone County Republican Party gave $25,000 to Neal’s recount bond and issued a symbolic censure of Michael Adams last year for speaking out against what Adams called “frivolous” recounts. 

Consequently, Adams lost in Boone County Tuesday night 48 to 44%, or by roughly 300 votes. 

He also lost 46 to 45% or by approximately 60 votes in Kenton County. 

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Republicans and Democrats in Kenton County have differing reasons why Knipper fared so well in their county. 

Kenton County Republicans voters think that Adams has worked to help to pass Kentucky’s voter ID law, and his steady bipartisan approach to the challenges of elections during Covid was not lost on voters, according to Shane Noem, chair of the Kenton County Republican Party. 

Instead, Noem thinks Knipper fared well in NKY because he has a solid name ID in the area. 

“Mr. Knipper lives in NKY and has been an elected official and on the ballot several times; it’s not a surprise that he did well in his own community,” Noem said. “In low turnout elections, a familiar name often gets an advantage, especially on their home turf.”

Kenton County Democrats, however, think there is a divide amongst Republicans who think election fraud charges help mobilize Republican voters and those who think election fraud charges hurt Republican turnout, according to Dave Meyer, the vice chair of the Kenton County Democratic Party. 

Meyer further thinks that Adams struggled in Northern Kentucky due to the liberty wing of the Republican party but also because of issues in the 2022 election. 

“This is in part because of the strength of the Massie wing of the Republican Party up here, but also reflects general dissatisfaction with the way recent laws have been used to reduce voter access,” Meyer said. “The 2022 general election was not well run in much of NKY, and Adams bears responsibility for that.” 

Meyer refers to issues in Kenton County that led to long lines at voting locations.

Several factors led to issues at the polls; city leaders said: Lack of poll workers and compliance problems with accessibility requirements were two of them. The most significant one, leaders said, was the consolidation of voting locations by more than 50%. 

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In January, the Covington City Commission called on the Kenton County Board of Elections not to further reduce the number of voting locations in Kenton County. The Kenton County Democrats have also been outspoken about not further reducing voting locations. 

“The 2022 election was the first election Michael Adams was the Chair of the Board of Elections, and it was a disaster,” Wheatley said. “Adams signed off on the plan to drastically reduce polling locations across the state, including in Kenton County, which led to the lowest voter turnout Kentucky has seen in nearly 30 years.” 

Wheatley lost his bid for reelection in the 65th House District, in part because redistricting in 2022 changed his district to be more suburban and thus more Republican-leaning, and away from the more Democratic-leaning parts of the district in Covington. 

Republicans argued it came down to candidate quality — Republican Stephanie Dietz became the first woman to win the seat.

Further, Kenton County Democrats point to the changes in the reduction of voting locations that they say suppress voters. 

Before each election, county election boards submit plans to the state board of elections. The state BOE approved the voting plans for Kenton County in March for the primary election. 

Kenton County’s plan contained 34 polling places, which was an increase from the 24 polling places the county had in the 2022 primary and general elections but a decrease from the 47 locations in the general election before that. 

Now that the primary has passed, the county board of elections will start work on their new plans, which must be approved by Sept. 20. The fight over the number of voting locations in Kenton County might play out in the Secretary of State’s race this year, with Kenton County Democrats and Wheatley using voting accessibility in the state’s third largest county as alleged evidence that Adams isn’t doing his job correctly. 

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However, Adams said he’s willing to work with local officials to find a plan that works for the county correctly.

“Election plans are devised locally, not by me, but I’ll work in good faith with anybody toward a solution if I see a county plan for November that I believe is insufficient,” he told LINK nky. 

Wheatley thinks that Knipper’s results in Northern Kentucky mean it might be time for a change, as the results in NKY show that some in the Republican party aren’t happy with him. 

“I would never allow for a repeat of the 2022 election,” Wheatley said. “Every community deserves ample opportunity to vote, and a key part of that is having accessible and sufficient voting locations.”

Wheatley faces a tough battle, though. Adams lost two NKY counties, but he won by more than 100,000 votes statewide, and time will tell if Wheatley has the name recognition outside Northern Kentucky that Adams shares statewide. 

“My Democratic opponent could not even carry a legislative district where Charles Booker got 48% of the vote, 10 points ahead of his statewide performance; that does not bode well for him in November, in Northern Kentucky or statewide,” Adams said. 

In 2022, Republicans flipped the state’s voter rolls for the first time in history. They also extended their supermajorities in the state legislature. They also hold all the state’s constitutional seats — secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, state auditor, and treasurer. 

Democrats control only the governor’s office, with Democrat Andy Beshear up for reelection this year. 

“The increased Republican turnout in NKY can be attributed to well-run elections, efforts to increase turnout using modern methods, and quality candidates having quality discussions on the issues,” Noem said.  “I think this is a trend that will continue as Republicans continue growing our registration majority.”

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