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, has so far forked out more than $5.3 million to Axiom Strategies — a Missouri-based GOP political consulting agency — and its media buying division, AxMedia, to help bolster her gubernatorial hopes ahead of the May 16 Republican primary.
Of the $5.3 million, more than $3.7 million went to AxMedia for “media placement.”
Just under $1 million went to Axiom Strategies for printing, direct mail, equipment, airfare, and other services. Just a bit more than $150,000 went to Axiom Strategies for consulting.
Craft and Gaines traveled the state that day campaigning on an “anti-trans” message, or what their campaign calls a “pro-women” message.
The new rhetoric and messaging around education and transgender issues are what some Democrats are calling a new “culture war” rallying cry for conservatives in the wake of their major win when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.
Northern Kentucky Rep. Rachel Roberts (D-Newport) said recently the new “anti-trans” legislation in Kentucky is a political move in a gubernatorial election year as Republicans try to oust Beshear from the governor’s office.
“I think the push for this is coming from a purely political vantage point,” Roberts said. “It’s a calculated messaging strategy on the majority party side that they think is going to help them win elections this year and the constitutional seats that are up for election, and that will be part of their messaging.”
Roberts further argued that the “anti-trans” message is the one that will replace the abortion message — after the fall of Roe v. Wade in 2022 triggered a law that banned the procedure in Kentucky.
“They needed the latest shiny penny thing that they could try and rally voters around, and tragically that seems to be them targeting some of the most vulnerable children in our community,” Roberts said.
Another rhetorical strategy around the “anti-trans” message is what the GOP calls “parental rights” — a messaging strategy used by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin when he scored an upset victory in 2021.
The group that worked on Youngkin’s campaign? Axiom Strategies.
Kristin Davison, vice president and general consultant for Axiom Strategies, said they are a large firm and that campaigns — not just their firm — across the country are tapping into the organic movement of education and parental rights that started as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the start of 2021, the Virginia governor’s race just began, and parents were attending school board races for the first time, and this movement started to gain steam, according to Davison.
“They were actually sitting with their kids in their living rooms, participating in their everyday class, and so it awoke an entire generation of parents from what was happening in their schools,” Davison said, noting that Democrats were slow to the punch and didn’t realize the movement that was happening.
“This was bigger than just Virginia,” Davison said. “This spread to Texas. It spread to Florida. It spread to Connecticut. It spread to Michigan. It spread to Nevada.”
The issue also isn’t monolithic, according to Davison.
“It’s not just school choice. It’s not just teacher pay,” Davison said. “It’s all the above, and so it all really was able to umbrella around this philosophy that parents should be involved in their child’s school.”
Now the movement, messaging, and strategy are in Kentucky.
The culture war strategy is one that University of Kentucky Political Professor Dr. Stephen Voss thinks works in the Commonwealth because Kentuckians lean conservative on social and cultural issues compared to voters nationwide.
“Republican campaigns benefit when Kentucky voters think nationally about the progressive cultural agenda that Democratic politicians embrace, whereas Democratic campaigns profit from pivoting the election toward family financial struggles or community health,” Voss said. “Craft’s aggressive Culture War campaign might keep Gov. Beshear against the ropes, as he fends off claims that he caters to ‘woke’ cultural progressives.”
Axiom’s first foray in Kentucky politics came in 2022 while working on Northern Kentucky Sen. Gex Williams’ (R-Verona) campaign — Davison said it wasn’t the firm testing the waters of Kentucky politics. Instead, it was Williams’ connections.
Williams’ campaign spent over $25,500 on the Kansas City, Mo. political consultant. His campaign manager was Matt Wolking, who worked on the 2020 Trump campaign and is now the strategic communications director for the super PAC Never Back Down, which is supporting the presidential hopes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — an outspoken governor when it comes to messaging around transgender women in women’s sports and education.
In the Kentucky state Senate, Williams played a key role in helping move through “anti-trans” legislation — Williams calls it “parental rights”— after introducing amendments similar to a law in South Dakota that bans puberty blockers, gender-affirming surgery, and cross-sex hormones.
The bill — Senate Bill 150 — that ultimately passed during the 2023 Kentucky General Assembly also prohibits schools from teaching sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms and forces transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with the gender assigned at birth.
Craft’s running mate, Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), sponsored SB150 and, upon its introduction, gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor attacking the “woke ideologies” of the Kentucky Department of Education — the speech set the tone of the legislative session, with Kentucky’s Republican legislature now mirroring the rhetoric of Youngkin in Virginia and DeSantis in Florida.
On the campaign trail in April, Craft appeared with Gaines, who tied with transgender woman Lia Thomas during an NCAA swim meet. Thomas, a former boys swimmer, placed above girls that Gaines argued worked their whole life to be usurped by a “man” competing in girls’ sports.
Gaines has gained notoriety for being outspoken in favor of banning transgender women from women’s sports, often appearing on conservative news networks and supporting legislation to ban transgender women from women’s sports.
“I can wholeheartedly attest to the extreme discomfort in the locker room when you turn around, and there’s a six-foot-four male dropping his pants, fully equipped with and exposing male genitalia and watching other girls undress,” Gaines said in Newport.
Craft spoke in favor of Kentucky’s newly enacted law.
“What I’m really concerned about as a mother and grandmother, I can’t imagine one of my granddaughters being in the girls’ bathroom in school and having a junior high or high school male coming into their bathroom or into their locker room,” Craft said.
Craft’s statewide message has also hit on education — another winning formula for Virginia Gov. Youngkin.
Craft said she would “dismantle” the Department of Education and remove “wokeness” from Kentucky’s schools, which mirrors similar messaging used by Youngkin.
Davison argues this messaging is used across the country, and the similarities between Youngkin’s and Craft’s campaigns are separate.
Craft’s and Youngkin’s campaign also used the “Kitchen Table” theme that hits on the nerve of issues average Americans discuss at their kitchen tables. Davison said this similarity between the two campaigns is unrelated.
“I think Republicans are becoming the party of America’s kitchen tables,” Davison said. “It’s not singular to one person, and even Joe Biden has tried stealing some of that verbiage.”
A few days after appearing in Newport, Craft’s campaign released a TV ad 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.”
The strategy could be working, with Craft gaining significant ground on Republican frontrunner Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the latest public poll.
Craft now sits just six points behind Cameron, who polled at 30%, and Craft at 24%. In the last public poll conducted by Mason-Dixon, Cameron led the Republican pack at 39%, with Craft sitting second at 13%.
Voss said the Emerson poll findings show Craft likely improved her name recognition and consequently softened Cameron’s support, and the poll probably caught some of that expected drift.
“This Emerson poll does not inspire the same confidence that it represents actual change from the Mason-Dixon poll, rather than just the normal noise that comes from different samples collected using different approaches,” Voss said.
When it comes to the ideological blows from Craft’s campaign, Voss said the biggest issue is that she’s employing it in a Republican primary where her leading opponent, Cameron, has strong conservative credentials that includes an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
“Craft has little basis for ideological attacks on her rivals, which leaves her stuck arguing that she’d be a better right-wing warrior later on,” Voss said. “Craft’s stuck selling herself in the primary based on personal traits — claims of competence or toughness — which is a messaging approach that rarely succeeds and does not appear to be hurting the favorability of her opponents.”
In the general election, if Craft were to win the Republican nomination and face Beshear, the incumbent Democrat would have an advantage, Voss said, because of the legislation passed by the Republican-dominated legislature.
“Beshear would have an advantage fending off Craft’s ideological blows, compared to Democrats in earlier elections, because of the slew of right-wing policies that Kentucky and other conservative states have marched into the legal code, especially in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned,” Voss said.
An example would be Kentucky voters’ rejection of the anti-abortion constitutional amendment in the fall of 2022.
“Nothing hurts a movement more than success because their opponents mobilize enthusiastically, their supporters grow complacent, and independents tilt against them to counterbalance their excesses,” Voss said. “Kentucky’s rejection of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment embodies the blue undertow that has followed Kentucky’s red wave, and Gov. Beshear appears likely to benefit from that leftward tug as well.”