FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky gubernatorial hopeful Ryan Quarles doubled down Friday on his grassroots Republican strategy, and Kelly Craft hinted at her own continuing interest in Kentucky's top political job — undeterred after Donald Trump shook up the 2023 campaign by endorsing Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
The thunderbolt announcement on Thursday came 11 months before the state's primary, when GOP voters will select a nominee to challenge Democratic Gov Andy Beshear.
The former president's declaration that Cameron has “stood out” at every level and would be a “great governor” was the sort of validation that every GOP hopeful had coveted. The fact that Trump did it while his former ambassador to the United Nations ponders a run of her own added a layer of intrigue.
The endorsement was seen as a clear boost for the first-term attorney general in his quest for support from a Republican base viewed as still loyal to the ex-president. It comes as U.S. House investigators are trying to make a methodical case that Trump’s lies about the 2020 election led directly to his supporters’ insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Cameron's GOP political rivals in Kentucky — looking to downplay the biggest development in the evolving campaign — offered business-as-usual assessments of their campaigns.
Quarles, who has built connections across rural Kentucky as state agriculture commissioner, said he won't alter his grassroots strategy, which he described as a “boots-on the-ground” campaign. Quarles has won dozens of endorsements from state lawmakers and county judge-executives.
“I appreciate their support of my campaign and I think their endorsements resonate far greater with Kentucky voters than any out-of-state voice will,” Quarles told The Associated Press in a statement.
Trump's backing of Cameron comes as Craft is considering her own bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Long seen as a potent political force in part because of her ability to fund a campaign with her own wealth, Craft served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Trump's presidential term.
Craft made no reference to her former boss in a statement Friday. Instead she said she's spent the past year traveling the state to talk to voters.
“The support and confidence I have received throughout the state has been humbling and encouraging,” Craft said. “My faith, family and principles will always be the compass I follow. I am enthusiastic and motivated about helping Kentucky. Stay tuned!”
Scott Jennings, a Kentuckian and onetime adviser to former President George W. Bush, predicted Craft will enter the race, undeterred by what he called Trump's “extremely valuable” endorsement of Cameron.
In sizing up the rivals, Jennings said: “Cameron is famous. Quarles is organized. Craft has resources. They all bring something to the table. And now Cameron has added the Trump endorsement to his case, which adds to the national feel of his candidacy.”
Cameron, who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention, has been pegged as a rising political star since being elected as the first African American to serve as Kentucky's attorney general in 2019. He also would become the state's first Black governor if victorious.
Adding to the intrigue surrounding the endorsement is Cameron's long ties to Kentucky’s most powerful Republican, U.S. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell — the target of blistering attacks from Trump. Their relationship soured after Trump’s denial of his 2020 defeat and relentless efforts to reverse the voters’ verdict with his baseless claims that Democrats fraudulently stole the election.
Meanwhile, Republican state Auditor Mike Harmon told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Trump's endorsement “doesn’t change anything” for his run for governor. He added he wished he would have had the chance to get in front of the former president.
Kentucky state Rep. Savannah Maddox's gubernatorial campaign didn't immediately respond to an email regarding Trump's endorsement of Cameron. Maddox, who portrays herself as an “authentic conservative” in trying to outflank her rivals, has stressed her alignment with Trump.
Retired attorney Eric Deters, another Republican trying to tap into Trump's populist base, referred to the ex-president's support for Cameron as “just another slap to his supporters.” Deters responded by announcing he will shift course and run for governor as an independent.
Nationally, Trump has a mixed record in this year’s midterm elections.
As for his impact on the still-distant Kentucky primary, GOP political consultant T.J. Litafik said: “I think that Trump is still very popular in this state. But Kentuckians are very independent-minded people, and I don't think that one man's endorsement — no matter who it is — is going to be the deciding factor for Kentucky Republicans.”
In 2019, Beshear defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who also had Trump’s support. Beshear, who has remained popular during his term in the GOP-trending state, has emphasized his stewardship of Kentucky’s economy — which has included historically low unemployment rates and some of the biggest economic development successes in the state’s history.