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Congested Republican field unites at Southern Kentucky Lincoln Day Dinner

Republican Party of Warren County FB

Four weeks remain before Republican primary voters decide which candidate will represent their party in the November general election contest for governor.

A dozen candidates are jockeying for the GOP nomination and the opportunity to retake the governor's mansion from Democrats. On Friday night, voters met the top five GOP hopefuls at the Southern Kentucky Lincoln Day Dinner in Bowling Green.

"I think it's pretty clear if you've been following race, these five candidates have separated from the pack of 12," Warren County Republican Party Chairman Timothy Gilliam told WKU Public Radio.

While some attendees already have a horse in the gubernatorial race, others came out to compare who are considered the most viable candidates to win the May 16 GOP primary.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, State Auditor Mike Harmon, and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck tried to paint themselves as the most experienced for the state's top job. But they were all in agreement on one thing.

"Any one of us is better than our current governor," quipped Harmon.

Harmon is serving as Kentucky's first Republican state auditor since 1967. While he's not a prolific fundraiser and has kept perhaps the lowest profile of any GOP candidate, Harmon stressed he's capable of a come-from-behind victory. He pointed to his 2015 race for auditor where he beat a candidate who raised $800,000 compared to Harmon's $45,000 war chest. That candidate was Democrat Adam Edelen, dubbed by one national pundit as "the next up and coming Southern Democrat."

Having spent the past seven years as auditor and 13 years in the Kentucky House of Representatives prior to that, Harmon worked to convince the audience that he's the most experienced candidate for the governor's mansion.

Harmon's office has issued two audits critical of the Beshear administration's handling of unemployment benefits during the pandemic. On Friday night, Harmon criticized the policies of Beshear during COVID-19, accusing Beshear of putting "fear over freedom."

Republicans have been extremely critical of the emergency restrictions on individuals and businesses issued by Beshear during the pandemic.

"Andy Beshear was the shutdown governor," said Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

"He shut down main street Bowling Green, but the big box stores got to stay open. That wasn't fair," Quarles told the audience. "He kept our kids out of the classroom longer than what was necessary and now we wonder why our test scores are down. That wasn't fair. And he sent state troopers to our churches on Easter Sunday just three years ago, violating our rights as Americans."

Quarles emphasized he went to court to keep family-owned businesses open, despite Beshear's ordered lock downs.

Quarles described himself as a Christian, a defender of the Second Amendment, and pro-life. He said those values would guide how he works with the General Assembly, if elected governor. Like others seeking the GOP nomination next month, Quarles said he's in the best position to beat Beshear in the November general election, having won 117 of Kentucky's 120 counties in his race for agriculture commissioner.

One of the candidates with the least name recognition is Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, who introduced himself Friday night as being among a "field of giants." However, Keck touted himself as a private sector entrepreneur who has transformed Somerset in four years with record revenue and job growth, two of those years during a pandemic.

"As proud conservatives, we need to ask ourselves, 'What are we conserving? Are we more free? Are we more safe,' asked Keck? "If the answer is no, then perhaps we need to do something different."

Keck asked voters to elect a CEO as governor who will focus on fiscal stability and increasing the state's workforce participation, while investing in education and public safety.

While Keck painted himself as a businessman with real world experience, GOP contender Kelly Craft said her art of negotiation would serve her well as governor. The UN Ambassador under former President Donald Trump has perhaps been the most polarizing of the 12 candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor. She didn't hold back either at Bowling Green's Lincoln Day Dinner where she reiterated her first act in office would be dismantling the Kentucky Department of Education.

"I'm going to take it apart and put it back together because there are great people in the Kentucky Department of Education. They've just been silenced by this woke commissioner (Jason) Glass, and if he does the right thing on the day after the election, he's going to resign. If not, I'm going to do the right thing, and on inauguration day, I'm going to fire him."

Craft hit hard on another recurring campaign theme— securing the southern border, which she claimed is easier to cross than it is to get into a University of Kentucky basketball game. She vowed to crack down on illegal drug trafficking by supporting the death penalty for traffickers responsible for causing fentanyl or other drug-related deaths.

Craft is trying to catch up to presumptive frontrunner Daniel Cameron. Two independent polls since January have given Kentucky's Attorney General the lead in the GOP primary. Craft and Cameron were in agreement on Friday night on two things: retiring Gov. Beshear and removing Education Commissioner Jason Glass, who the GOP has been critical of for supporting pro-LGBTQ policies in schools.

"We have great challenges among us in this commonwealth and across the country," Cameron said. "We know that Democratic leadership in Washington and a Democratic governor have come together to create a perfect storm of conditions, that if left unchecked, will destroy our values."

Cameron said the past four years of Democratic leadership has meant shutdowns and lockdowns, vaccine mandates being threatened, higher homicide rates in larger cities, the coal industry under attack, and less parental influence in schools.

Cameron said his office fought the Beshear administration to reopen churches in Kentucky, challenged the Biden administration against imposing vaccine mandates for Kentuckians, and closed every abortion facility in the bluegrass state.

Cameron urged voters to help him get across the finish line in four weeks. He maintains the lead in a field of 12 contenders for the GOP nomination, but Kelly Craft in second place is narrowing the gap. On April 10-11, Emerson College and Lexington TV station WDKY surveyed 900 likely voters in next month’s Republican primary. Results show Cameron leading with 30% support and Craft at 24%.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles garnered 15% support, a substantial improvement since the last independent poll on the governor’s race in January. That survey by Mason-Dixon Polling gave Quarles just eight percent support among likely voters. Most notably, the January poll had Cameron leading Craft by 26 points. This latest survey released on Friday has the Republican AG with only a six point lead.

Kentucky's Republican gubernatorial hopefuls were bolstered by Asa Hutchinson who was the keynote speaker at the Lincoln Day Dinner. Hutchinson worked as a federal prosecutor before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was later tapped to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration under former President George W. Bush. He also served in the Department of Homeland Security before serving two terms as governor of Arkansas.

Hutchinson announced plans this month to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2024. He's joined by former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Governor Nicki Haley, business owner Vivek Ramaswamy, who have formally announced bids for the White House.

During the political dinner in Bowling Green, Hutchinson expressed his excitement for the GOP candidates running for Kentucky governor this year.

“I like the candidates and I think they all have a very good message,” Hutchinson said. “I think they're all presenting themselves well and it’s going to be a close race, and they’re all going to have to get out there and work hard in a large field."

During his address, Hutchinson focused on five policy changes that he thinks need to be made to “get America back on the right track.” The former Arkansas governor said fixing the economy would be a chief priority if elected, and quelling federal spending. He would also focus on securing the U.S. border, and declare Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

Hutchinson also pledged to put an end to what he called a liberal-leaning social agenda in schools and implement pro-growth energy policies. He added that Kentucky’s coal industry could be a valuable asset to the future of reliable energy.

“I think that we need to produce energy, and coal can be a part of that mix,” Hutchinson said. "I think that we need to have all of the fossil fuels involved in energy production, as well as solar and wind.”

During his address, Hutchinson said having an alternative to Donald Trump is important for the Republican Party heading into the presidential election next year.

“We don't want to lose in 2024, that's why myself, as well as other candidates are providing alternatives,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not negative. I’m talking about what I believe is the course of correction for our county and for our party.”

Hutchinson is the first 2024 presidential candidate to visit Kentucky, which Warren County Republican Party Chairman Timothy Gilliam called a major feat.

“Kentucky is a little later on the primary calendar than some of the other states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina," acknowledged Gilliam. "It’s not often Kentucky is in the mix in respect to presidential elections, so anything you can get a presidential candidate to Kentucky, it’s special.”

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
Jacob Martin is a reporter for WKU Public Radio.
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