November 7, 2023
Written by Ethan Mort
The Kentucky gubernatorial race is 2023’s most expensive, totaling $91M between the primary and general elections. The general election has seen $73.7M in total spending, making it the most expensive of the year, with Wisconsin’s Supreme Court general election second at $30M. Kentucky’s gubernatorial general has seen a staggering 170% increase in political ad spending from 2019’s contest. The candidates commanding all of this spending? Democratic incumbent governor Andy Beshear and Kentucky Attorney General, Daniel Cameron.
Despite the election being rated Lean D by Cook Political Report, Democrats did not take their 5,000 vote victory in 2019’s gubernatorial general for granted. Democratic advertisers will end the election with a $18M spending advantage over Republicans. This has been accomplished by Beshear’s massive amounts of candidate ad buying. In a race that has attracted a total $46M in group spending, Beshear’s campaign still ends up being the top advertiser in the race with $23.5M spent. The next highest-spending advertiser is the Republican group, Defending Bluegrass Values ($23M). In a similar trend that unfolded across many of 2022’s races, Cameron’s candidate spending was dwindled by Beshear’s, as Cameron was outspent by $19M. Republican groups have attempted to helped narrow the gap, spending $23.8M. These groups include Kentucky Values ($13M), School Freedom Fund ($3.2), Club for Growth Action ($2.7M), Bluegrass Freedom Action ($2.6M), Protect Freedom PAC ($1.7M) and State Solutions Inc ($466K). However, Democratic groups, mainly Defending Bluegrass Values, nearly matched that by spending $23M.
Democratic advertisers have the advantage of spending in every TV and radio market across Kentucky, with their biggest leads existing in Lexington and Louisville.
Following the trend of national hot-button issues taking precedence in statewide elections, the top issues across this election’s TV ads have been crime, abortion, and gender. Republicans have focused on crime, gender, and Joe Biden, while Democrats have focused their ads around abortion, jobs, and the economy. Abortion has been mentioned across 13% of ads, with both parties releasing ads about the issue. Most notable was Beshear’s ad of a girl recounting her story of being raped by her stepfather, highlighting the need for abortion exceptions in cases of rape and incest. Republican advertisers released ads tying their party’s stance on abortion with what they believe to be their more successful “parents’ choice” platform. Another social issue that made its way into the race was transgender rights. The only Democratic ad that touched on the issue was this Beshear ad that mentioned his faith and reiterated that he does not support gender reassignment surgery and proclaims those surgeries do not occur within the state. Meanwhile, Republicans released multiple ads on the issue, with one ad responding to the aforementioned Beshear ad, alleging the governor lied and that he did allow gender reassignment surgeries to occur in Kentucky.
Despite not appearing as one of the top three issues for either party’s ads, Donald Trump has been heavily influential in both party’s advertising. With Trump winning Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, both parties sought to win over the former President’s supporters. Republican advertisers released six ads trying to connect Trump’s popularity in the state to Cameron. One such ad was Club for Growth Action’s ad that aired during election week, featuring Trump praising Cameron while attacking Beshear as being “Biden-endorsed”. Meanwhile, the Beshear campaign released two ads trying to tap into Trump’s popularity in the state. One ad features an interview with a Republican who voted for Trump for “putting the American People first” but now he’s voting for Beshear as he’s “putting Kentucky First”. The other ad featured Floyd County Sheriff John Hunt endorsing Beshear and praising Beshear for following Trump’s lead in the early release of nonviolent offenders during COVID. Like the former President, current President Joe Biden also has a significant presence across this election’s ads, but with one exception, his own party has not mentioned him in any of their ads. All ad mentions of Biden come from Republican advertisers trying to tie Beshear to the President with a 22% approval rating in the Bluegrass State.
A remerging issue in this election has been COVID-19. An issue not seen in many of 2023’s races, coronavirus ended up as the eighth most mentioned issue in this election, with both parties airing thousands of ads mentioning the pandemic. The Cameron campaign released an ad attacking Beshear for closing down schools during the pandemic. Tying the incumbent governor to the COVID shutdowns follows the strategy the RGA leveled against Steve Sisolak in Nevada’s gubernatorial election last year, the only Republican pickup from 2022. Meanwhile, Beshear released an ad highlighting the state’s recovery since COVID.
With early voting underway, the race has seemingly tightened. Last month, Emerson released a poll showing Beshear up 16 points. A new Emerson poll released on November 3rd, now finds Cameron tied with Beshear, with Cameron winning undecided voters by a point, and seeing a 25-point increase of Trump supporters promising their vote to the Attorney General. With a Republican victory in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race last month, Republicans will be seeking to clear the board with wins in Kentucky and Mississippi.
For our analysis of Missisippi’s gubernatorial election, read our blog here: