In the race for secretary of state, gloves come off at Fancy Farm

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

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Nearly nine months to the day he lost his reelection bid to the 65th District House seat, Buddy Wheatley stood on a stage in Marshall County, pitching his credentials to a room full of Democrats on why he should be Kentucky’s next secretary of state. 

“As a firefighter and a former state legislator, I faced tremendous challenges and never backed down,” Wheatley said. “And I can say that as a defender of free and fair elections, I won’t back down.”

A tremendous challenge is what Wheatley is facing in beating incumbent Secretary of State Michael Adams — a Republican with deep popularity amongst both parties for his bipartisanship efforts to improve access to polls and fighting those in his own party who claim election fraud. 

Polls show Wheatley far behind Adams in a state that’s continuing to trend Republican.

But, Wheatley argues that Adams has caused significant issues with voter suppression and historic low voter turnout, as well as considering pulling out of the multi-state Electronic Registration Information Center partnership. 

Wheatley spoke at the Marshall County Democrats’ Mike Miller Bean Dinner the night before Fancy Farm — the state’s unique version of retail politics that allows competing politicians to roast each other with crowds booing and cheering.  

He outlined that as secretary of state, he would keep open polls until 7 p.m. and allow two full weeks of early voting. He also went on the attack against his opponent and said Adams had drastically reduced polling locations, causing voter suppression, which led to historic lows in voter turnout during the 2022 election. 

“Michael Adams was talking about pulling Kentucky out of ERIC, which is a bipartisan program for voter fraud protection,” Wheatley said, referring to the program that’s come under heavy scrutiny from some Republicans that say the system allows for widespread election fraud.

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Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams prepares to be interviewed on statewide television in Lexington, Ky., Monday, May 8, 2023. Adams still doesn’t have a clear path for reelection despite winning bipartisan praise during his first term in office and expanding voter access during the COVID-19 pandemic. He now must persuade Republican primary voters who have been bombarded for years with false claims about rigged elections. Photo by Timothy D. Easley | Associated Press

“ERIC is a bipartisan organization of chief election officials in various states; it assists member states in procuring federal data like National Change of Address and in sharing states’ data among each other,” Adams said at the time. “Its work is funded by these states, not by private individuals.”

The system has become controversial in recent years after former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election. This led to his followers claiming issues with the sanctity of U.S. Elections, including in Kentucky.

“Unfortunately, like any effort at bipartisanship in recent history, it has come under attack,” Adams said. “I have consistently defended ERIC against falsehoods about its funding and operations, even risking my re-nomination for this Office to do so. ERIC has helped Kentucky comply with the law and conduct fair elections.”

Outside of the issues mentioned by Wheatley, there was some bipartisanship between both he and Adams when the Kentucky legislature passed two voting bills during Wheatley’s last term in office — House Bill 574 in 2021 and House Bill 564 in 2022, which allow better access to voting and increase election security.

But, any bipartisanship was off the table this weekend in Fancy Farm, and on a stage the next morning in Mayfield at the Graves County GOP Breakfast just a few hours before the kick-off of the Fancy Farm picnic, Adams hit out at Wheatley’s voting record in the state legislature. 

“He’s voted against expanding election audits,” Adams said. “He’s voted against transition to paper ballots … this guy is far out.” 

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Adams also painted a picture of a state trending deep red and with major unfavorability for Democratic President Joe Biden. 

Republicans across the ballot — Kentucky’s constitutional seats, including the governor, lieutenant governor, agriculture commissioner, treasurer, state auditor, attorney general, and secretary of state, are all up for grabs this year— tried to tie national politics to the state level and take advantage of some of that unfavorability amongst voters. 

“First, voter registration is trending our way,” Adams said. “Just about a year ago, for the first time in Kentucky history, there are more registered Republicans than registered Democrats.” 

The GOP ticket spent the weekend attacking Democrats, including Wheatley and Gov. Andy Beshear, and trying to attach Biden to state Democrats.

It might be an arduous task for Republicans, though, to tie Beshear to Biden, according to Morning Consult polls that regularly give Beshear at least 60% favorability amongst Kentuckians, including 49% amongst Republicans in the latest poll.

“But to Beshear’s credit, even those who dislike the president more often than not give the governor positive marks,” the poll reads. 

It’s unclear if that favorability will bleed to any Democratic down-ballot candidates, including Wheatley. 

A Public Opinion Strategies poll, which came out in June and was paid for by the Prichard Committee, showed Andy Beshear leading by 10 points over his opponent, Attorney General. Daniel Cameron. 

In early July, Public Opinion released another poll that showed Beshear with just a four-point advantage, but the Republican State Leadership Committee conducted that poll, and some questioned its validity. 

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Either way, Democrats said that for a Republican poll, Beshear is still in the lead, while Republicans focused on the narrowing gap. 

The same poll showed Adams leading Wheatley 48 to 24% with 26% undecided, and Adams hit out at Wheatley over the poll. 

“In the polls, he’s only getting 24%, in third place, behind undecided,” Adams quipped, before saying that Wheatley is just happy to see a number above .08% — a jab at a 2008 incident where Wheatley, a Covington fire chief at the time, allegedly drove a city vehicle while intoxicated.

Wheatley pointed to the fact that Adams sits at less than 50% and said he’s ready to work to cover that ground between now and Nov. 7 — just a little over three months away. 

“He’s an incumbent in a red-leaning state,” Wheatley said. “It really shows that the people of Kentucky aren’t satisfied with Michael Adams, and there are tons of undecideds.”

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