LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Republican primary for governor of Kentucky got a little bigger Monday.
With State Representative Savannah Maddox’s entry into the field, there are now nine Republicans vying for the chance to unseat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in November 2023. And that number could still go up. The deadline to enter the race won’t arrive until January.
Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, said the growing field of Republican candidates is a “sign of success” for the GOP. “The state has become so heavily and predictably Republican that candidates figure the Republican primary is tantamount to winning the governorship,” he said. If they assume a Republican will unseat Beshear, they’re unlikely to get a chance to run again for eight years. “You don’t want to miss this window with a Democrat in office,” Voss said.
Along with Maddox, the Republican field includes Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, State Auditor Mike Harmon, and a handful of lesser known candidates.
And they’ve gotten in early. Harmon began his campaign in April and both Quarles and Cameron launched in May. Several of the candidates filed paperwork to run in 2021, nearly two years before the general election.
For comparison, Democrats found themselves in a similar position in 2018, with a governor from the opposite party running for reelection the following year. Beshear, then the Attorney General, was the first major candidate to launch a campaign, but he didn’t do so until July. Former Democratic House Leader Rocky Adkins followed in November, and former State Auditor Adam Edelen didn’t get in the race until January.
With seven months until the deadline to file for the office, Voss said there is a lot of time for additional candidates to decide there’s a path to victory or to capitalize on a potential stumble from one who is already in the race.
Potential candidates are “reading the voters, reading their opponents, and reading the likely electability of the candidates who are in the lead,” he said. “I wouldn’t be shocked to get at least one more addition.”
A growing GOP primary comes with upsides and downsides for the Republican party. On the plus side, a competitive primary will give Republicans a head start in organizing and turning out their voters. “Voting is habitual,” Voss said, and a Republican electorate that is mobilized in May will be more likely to turn out in November. Republicans will also collect data and building communications channels during the primary that they can use in the general election.
But primaries are also a drain on candidate resources and fundraising networks. They could also force more moderate candidates to move to the extremes.
“A flank attack from the extreme, from the fringe, can force a more mainstream candidate to massage their platform in a direction that moves them farther away from the middle of the road voter,” Voss said. That position could then become a liability in the general election.
Maddox has already made it clear that she will seek to push candidates to the right. In a video announcing her candidacy Monday, she suggested that some of her opponents are actually Democrats who should run in that party’s primary instead.
That good news for the GOP is that even after hard-fought primaries, voters typically rally around the winner, even if the eventual winner battered their preferred candidate, Voss said.
As for Beshear, the competitiveness of the GOP primary will not necessarily help or hurt him, but he can hope.
“You hope that they spill some blood, that they generate lots of attacks that you later can use, that they spend a lot of money,” Voss said. “But you also have to realize that all that energy on the Republican side is building things that can be used against you.”