KY governor race heats up with record spending, attack ads

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

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This story originally appeared in the Sept. 15 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here. Enjoy the Sunday Story in two ways – read below or listen here.

On a cool spring Kentucky Monday in April, an Axiom Strategies staffer stood outside Mokka Sunset on Monmouth Street in Newport, waiting to usher Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft and former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines to their next campaign event of the day in Louisville and then to another in Bowling Green later in the day.

Craft, a former United Nations ambassador, forked out nearly $11 million in the Kentucky Republican primary and had one of the most high-profile national political consultants, Axiom, — a Missouri-based GOP political consulting agency — working on her campaign. 

Despite all this spending and high-profile campaign work, Craft lost her bid to win the Republican nomination for Kentucky governor and instead placed third. 

Attorney General Daniel Cameron went on to take the nomination. 

Craft’s campaign, which spent more than $4 million on TV and radio ads through AxMedia, a division of Axiom Strategies, brought a level of spending not seen in a Kentucky governor’s race — especially in a primary.

While Craft spent big on the primary, this year’s general election race between Cameron and incumbent and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is expected to break spending records set in the 2019 race against former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. 

On Aug. 21, Medium Buying, a group that tracks political advertisement spending, said that so far in the race Democrats and Republicans had forked out $28 million — surpassing overall expenditures in the 2019 race, when Beshear beat Bevin, which totaled $26.9 million.

In 2019, Republican advertisers outspent Democrats nearly 4-to-1. In 2023, Democrats have outspent Republicans 2-to-1.

The reports show that Democrats have spent more than double that of Republicans, with $19.6 million spent so far.

While both parties are spending big on attack ads, there’s been little campaigning in Northern Kentucky — a region that proved to be crucial to Beshear’s win in 2019. 

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, with 49.5% in Kenton County.

In the Republican primary in the spring, Cameron won Boone County with 48% of the vote, Campbell with 44%, and Kenton with 45%.  

But, as of late August, Cameron has held only three official campaign visits in NKY, and Beshear has held only one — though both have appeared in the region in their official capacities and campaign fundraisers that require a donation to gain entrance. 

But, if Beshear and Cameron are spending so much, why are they campaigning so little in the region? 

Record spending and attack ads

On a hot summer morning in early August, state political reporters gathered in Mayfield, Kentucky, at the Graves County Republican Breakfast just hours before the throwdown at Fancy Farm — the state’s unique version of retail politics that allows competing politicians to roast each other, with crowds booing and cheering.

Fancy Farm is the annual kickoff to the general election season, and this year the event carried extra weight due to the gubernatorial election between Beshear and Cameron.

Expecting just to hear from the state’s Republican constitutional candidates, including the gubernatorial nominee, Cameron, it came as a surprise when Republican leaders told reporters that Sen. Mitch McConnell planned to speak that morning.

McConnell’s appearance came amid a series of health events, including at the U.S. Capitol, where he momentarily lost his train of thought during a press conference, leading to other Senate members escorting him to a nearby office.

Some questioned the de facto Republican’s leadership status among the state party.

If there were any doubts among state Republicans — or Democrats —about McConnell’s mental acuity, they were laid to rest when McConnell gave a rousing speech that the job isn’t done for Republicans, who control the state government with supermajorities in the Legislature, five of seven constitutional seats, both U.S. Senate seats and five of six U.S. congressional seats.

But it’s the governor’s office McConnell also wants, and he flew into the state to rally Republicans around his message ahead of the November election.

“We owe it to the next generation of Kentuckians to finish the job this November,” McConnell said.

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But McConnell and Republicans aren’t just expending political capital to win the governor’s office — they’re also spending big on the campaign trail and advertisements.

It’s also not just Republicans. Beshear and Democrats have forked out significant funds to see him win another term as Kentucky governor.

With only two other governor races in the country this year, in Mississippi and Louisiana, the race in Kentucky will be the one to watch — Beshear is the most popular Democratic governor in the country, and Cameron could be the first African-American elected governor in the state’s history.

It could also give Republicans complete control of state government, but they’ll first have to beat the big money machine that is the Beshear campaign.

Defending Bluegrass Values — a PAC affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association — has spent $13.4 million, while Preserve Protect and Defend has spent $45,000.

The Beshear campaign has spent $6.2 million.

Republican spending has totaled nearly $8.8 million, with the Kentucky Values PAC, which is tied to the Republican Governors Association, spending just under half that amount at $4.1 million.

Bluegrass Freedom Action, which recently had one of its Kentucky directors resign due to the use of racial slurs, has spent $1.1 million.

The Cameron campaign has spent $633,000.

A new PAC has also entered the ad spending game in the state, which is likely to boost Republicans’ spending significantly. School Freedom Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based super-PAC backed by the conservative group Club for Growth, has spent $2.9 million.

Super-PACs can raise unlimited funds, while PACs have strict $5,000 donation limits. 

PACs, or political action committees, are created for the explicit purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat political candidates, according to OpenSecrets, a campaign finance website. 

The School Freedom Fund specifically “supports candidates who believe that parents should be in charge of their children’s education, not unelected education bureaucrats.”

In one July ad, they attacked Beshear over the commutations he made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ad opens with a narrator saying, “These Kentucky convicts had means and motive to sexually abuse a young child, brutally strangle a woman, allegedly murder an innocent man,” with the images of three inmates.

It then says, “Gov. Beshear issued commutations for more than 1,700 inmates. A new report found that half the criminals he let out of jail went right out and committed more crimes. One-third of them committed a new felony.”

The ad’s claim that more than half of those inmates committed crimes after they were released is correct, but it doesn’t clarify that they were charged after their planned release date.

In another, they blame Beshear for a school bus debacle in the Jefferson County Public School system that left kids stranded until late at night. The busing plan was approved by the school district, and governors do not have authority over local school district decisions. 

The School Freedom Fund also joined with Protect Freedom PAC on the ads.

Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania-based billionaire, has backed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul by donating extensively to the Club for Growth PAC, which supports Paul — as well as the Making a Sensible Shift in Elections PAC that’s associated with Northern Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie.

Yass also has been a proponent of school choice and charter schools, which will likely be at the forefront of the next legislative session and Cameron’s campaign — though Cameron’s campaign has distanced itself from saying it supports school choice. 

Yass made a $3 million donation to the Protect Freedom PAC on June 8. He made a $10 million donation to Club for Growth on June 7.

Democrats are also firing back against Cameron’s education record, with Defending Bluegrass Values releasing an ad on Aug. 8 that tries to connect Cameron to the deep unpopularity of Bevin. The ad opens with Bevin and the headline, “Bevin blames teachers.”

“After former Gov. Matt Bevin attacked Kentucky teachers, Daniel Cameron stood behind him,” the ad says. “When Bevin let murderers and sexual predators out of prison early, Cameron protected Bevin from a special prosecutor.”

The donations from the out-of-state PACs signal that education is likely to be a key part of both Beshear’s and Cameron’s campaigns: Both candidates released their education plans in mid-August.

“While Gov. Andy Beshear supports raising pay for educators and providing universal pre-K for all Kentucky students, Daniel Cameron is backing a reckless anti-public education agenda that would send our tax dollars into unaccountable private schools,” said Beshear’s campaign manager Eric Hyers.

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The Cameron campaign said that due to lockdowns during COVID-19 — that they blame on Beshear — Kentucky students are facing generational learning loss.

 “Kentucky’s test scores have declined every year since Andy Beshear has been in office,” Cameron said. “He has failed our teachers, parents and students. He’s robbed thousands of young people of their God-given potential and their shot at the American dream.”

How reporters campaign spending

Various parties must file with the Kentucky Registry for Election Finance (KREF) in Kentucky. These include candidates running for state or local office, executive committees and parties that must file if they plan to raise money to run for office.

The state registry is tasked with the administration, regulation and enforcement of Kentucky’s campaign finance laws, according to John Steffen, the executive director of KREF. 

“It is an independent agency of state government overseen by a bipartisan seven-member board,” Steffen said. “To ensure the fair and efficient enforcement of campaign finance laws, the board members and staff of the registry are prohibited from being involved in political activities.” 

Steffen said it’s important to track both campaign receipts and expenditures, because there are limits to how much can be donated to candidates and committees. It’s also important to track expenditures, because this money must be spent on campaign-related items and functions, not the personal benefit of the candidate. 

“It is also important for the public to see who candidates are receiving contributions from and how that money is being spent,” Steffen said. “One of the most important functions of the registry is assuring that reports received from the candidates and committees are made available to the public.” 

On the federal level, candidates running for federal office, including the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the presidency and vice presidency, must file with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) when they raise or spend more than $5,000 in contributions or expenditures, according to Myles Martin, a public affairs specialist with the FEC. There is an exception for registration if candidates run for office and want to test the waters.

“Additionally, political party committees and political action committees may have to file reports, depending on their activity in connection with federal elections, and specific registration thresholds apply to these groups,” Martin said. “Finally, every person, group of persons or organization, other than a political committee, that makes certain communications may be required to file certain disclosure forms with the FEC, as well as comply with disclaimer requirements for specific types of communications.”

Political committees file quarterly during election years. During odd-numbered nonelection years, they can file semiannually. National party committees file monthly every year.

Created by Congress in 1974, the Federal Election Commission serves as an independent regulatory agency to administer and enforce federal campaign finance laws, according to Martin. It officially started operating in April 1975.

“Broadly speaking, the FEC’s three key responsibilities include facilitating public disclosure of funds raised and spent to influence federal elections by receiving and making campaign finance reports publicly available from candidates, political parties, and other filers; civil enforcement of the federal campaign finance laws; and administering the Presidential Public Funding Program,” Martin said.

When it comes to enforcement, the agency has civil enforcement authority over campaign finance laws. Committees that fail to file disclosures can be assessed administrative fines.

“Enforcement of other types of alleged violations may be initiated by someone filing a sworn and notarized complaint with the agency if they believe a violation of the campaign finance laws has occurred or is about to occur,” Martin said. “Additionally, in the normal course of exercising its supervisory authority (such as through the review of campaign finance reports or the auditing of political committees), the FEC may initiate enforcement actions if evidence of potential violations is discovered.”

Martin further pointed out that campaign finance reports filed with the federal commission are made available to the public after filing with the agency.

“The campaign finance data contains a wealth of information that may be of interest to voters, reporters, researchers and others who wish to find out more about the financing of federal elections and campaigns,” Martin said. “Itemized contributions from individuals are searchable in the FEC database.”

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Power of the incumbency

For current office-holders, including Cameron and Beshear, not all campaigning happens in advertisements or on the campaign trail. Both use their office to get publicity, giving them certain competitive advantages.

“Incumbents enjoy numerous advantages when running for office, but one of the most important advantages is their ability to exploit their current positions for free publicity,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

It happens in their current official capacity when they go to a ribbon-cutting or present a check with state money, and it allows them to more easily build credibility with voters and Kentuckians without spending campaign dollars.

In the case of Beshear, that also meant getting significant TV time during the pandemic when he delivered his weekly updates.

“Instead of spending good money running advertisements, which voters might ignore or might dismiss as self-serving, elected officials can devote their time to engaging in public business that will attract news coverage and build name recognition in a more trustworthy way,” Voss said.

Voss elaborated that traditional campaign events typically appeal to political junkies, but those voters typically have already made up their minds.

However, an event where a politician serves in an official capacity is more likely to reach voters who tune out politics.

“To voters disgusted with politics, a candidate at a campaign rally might come across as sleazy or desperate, whereas an elected official announcing a development that’s good for Kentucky, such as a bridge repair or a favorable legal judgment, looks responsible and powerful,” Voss said.

For Beshear and Northern Kentucky, a signature part of Beshear’s re-election campaign in the region is promoting the Brent Spence Bridge without tolls.

In February 2022, Beshear stood on a stage at the Covington Convention Center with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and said he wanted to break ground on the project in 2023 — an election year.

Eleven months later, in January 2023, Beshear, along with President Joe Biden, DeWine, McConnell, former Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, stood along the banks of the Ohio River in front of the ailing Brent Spence Bridge as Biden announced $1.6 billion in federal infrastructure money for the new bridge.

Just a few hours later, in the Kentucky House chambers in Frankfort, Beshear again touted the bridge’s funding during his State of the Commonwealth address.

In late July, Beshear stood at the overlook in Devou Park and announced the design partners for the project.

When LINK nky asked whether breaking ground on the project in 2023 is important to his re-election, he turned to DeWine and quipped, “There’s an election this year?”

The audience laughed, but Beshear said he thought it’s important to get the project completed and not let politics get in the way but also acknowledged it doesn’t hurt his chances.

“I certainly hope it doesn’t hurt,” he said.

As for Cameron, he’s used his platform as attorney general to say he fought for Kentucky’s fair share of the opioid abatement settlement.

As part of legislation the Kentucky General Assembly created, the Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission is responsible for disbursing the funds awarded to the state as part of national legal settlements.

In 2022, the commission traveled the state, holding town halls with Kentuckians.

Publicly, Cameron announced that the state received the settlements, took credit for securing the $842 million, and named the commission’s executive director.

“Cameron’s emphasizing the opioid abatement settlement because it lets him advertise something that’s uncontroversial, and so brings universal appeal,” Voss said, noting that in political science jargon, it is a “valence issue,” which is when there’s broad consensus among voters, such as prosperity and crime abatement.

Voss said that most people like to see the state receiving money, and naturally, Cameron would want to play up his role in securing the funds.

Another aspect is that drug abuse causes widespread anxiety, and voters want to see elected officials tackling the issue, even though state leaders have little control over bringing about change.

“It’s the sort of issue that voters want to see their elected officials addressing, even though state leaders have limited power when it comes to bringing about change,” Voss said. “Cameron has identified a rare opportunity to show that he’s involved with tangible efforts to curtail drug abuse.”

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