Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron will win his party’s nomination for governor in Tuesday’s primary, CNN projects, setting up a highly anticipated clash this fall with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
Cameron, who was endorsed by Donald Trump, will defeat former diplomat Kelly Craft in a race that was seen as a test of the former president’s influence with Republican primary voters as the 2024 presidential race takes shape.
Cameron’s victory sets up one of 2023’s most important elections, and one with implications for 2024.
CNN projected Tuesday night that Beshear will win the Democratic renomination. His bid for a second term could be an important bellwether for next year, when his party is defending Senate seats in other red states – Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.
Beshear, whose father was a two-term governor, defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin – an unpopular incumbent who had angered many in his own party – in 2019. As expected, he fended off nominal Democratic opposition in Tuesday’s primary.
Republicans, though, argue that despite Beshear’s popularity, November’s general election is likely to be competitive in the deep-red state. Republicans have erased Democrats’ ancestral voter registration advantage in recent years, and a Democratic presidential nominee has not won Kentucky since former President Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. Beshear is the party’s only remaining statewide elected officeholder.
Cameron offered “a big thank you” to Trump at his election night party Tuesday.
“Let me just say, the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky,” Cameron said.
Cameron nodded at his potential history-making status: If he defeats Beshear in November, he would become Kentucky’s first Black governor and the first Black Republican elected governor in the United States.
“To anyone who looks like me, know that you can achieve anything. Know that in this country and in Kentucky, all that matters are your values,” Cameron said.
He also previewed his lines of attack on Beshear in the election to come, blaming the first-term Democrat for crime, low workforce participation rates, fentanyl and schools that he said are “on the verge of becoming breeding grounds for liberal and progressive ideals.”
He said the Republican-controlled legislature deserves most of the credit for Beshear’s accomplishments.
“The governor cannot pretend to have hit a triple when everybody else knows that he was born on third base,” Cameron said.
He added: “A governor who will not speak out on these issues and will not stand up for your interests has abdicated his responsibilities to the commonwealth and is not fit to lead it any longer.”
Craft, in tearful remarks at her election night party, didn’t use Cameron’s name but complained about his campaign tactics.
But she also urged Republican voters to unite against Beshear.
“While I’m disappointed in tonight’s result, we must now come together united as one Republican Party to defeat Andy Beshear in November,” she said.
Of the dozen candidates in the Kentucky Republican gubernatorial primary, Cameron, Craft and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles emerged as the top contenders.
The contest was bitter, with Cameron and Craft sniping at each other for months.
Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were aligned in supporting Cameron, a former McConnell staffer.
But Craft, a former US ambassador to Canada and later the United Nations under Trump’s administration, pumped millions of dollars of her family’s money into the race.
She received a late endorsement Monday from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, turning the primary into a proxy war of sorts ahead of DeSantis’ likely looming showdown with Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump, meanwhile, spoke at a tele-rally for Cameron on Sunday evening.
Craft downplayed Trump’s endorsement of Cameron, noting that it came when she was not officially in the race.
Cameron, in a debate earlier this month, shot back by pointing out that the former president attended the Kentucky Derby alongside Craft last year – and weeks later, endorsed Cameron.
“Kelly, you spent six months telling folks that you were going to get the Donald Trump endorsement. You had him at the Derby last year. And then I got the endorsement. And your team has been scrambling ever since,” Cameron said at the debate hosted by Kentucky Educational Television.
Craft leaned into attacks on transgender rights while slamming what she calls “woke ideology” in schools.
“We will not have transgenders in our school system,” she said Monday during a telephone town hall – a remark that prompted criticism from pro-LGBTQ rights advocates in Kentucky.
For his part, Quarles sought to win over voters who may be turned off by the ad battles between Cameron and Craft.
“It’s important that Republicans nominate a candidate who can unite the party,” he said in the early May debate.
While the governor’s race is Kentucky’s marquee contest of 2023, Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, a vocal defender of the state’s election practices, will win the GOP primary, CNN projected.
Adams fended off a challenge from Stephen Knipper, an information technology project manager who has made false claims of fraud in the Bluegrass State’s elections, as well as former state lawmaker Allen Maricle.
Adams will be the heavy favorite as he takes on Democratic former state Rep. Buddy Wheatley, who was unopposed for his party’s nomination, in November.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Ethan Cohen contributed to this story.