2023 Kentucky Gubernatorial Primary Analysis


Written by Ethan Mort and Josh Fried

Today is primary day in Kentucky.  Voters across the Bluegrass State will be selecting their party’s candidates for statewide offices to advance to the state’s general elections later this year on November 7th. The gubernatorial primary saw the most spending within the state, with $14M spent on the election. This makes the Kentucky gubernatorial primary the state’s second most expensive primary in history, only behind 2020’s Senate primary, which saw $31.7M. Kentucky gubernatorial primary was the fourth most expensive 2023 election so far.

Andy Beshear won Kentucky’s tightly contested gubernatorial election in 2019, pulling off an upset by winning as a Democrat in a state that has been solidly Republican for decades. Beshear is standing for re-election this year as the incumbent. With no serious challenger on the Democrat side, nearly all the ad spending has occurred in the Republican primary. Republican candidates and issue groups spent $13.7M versus the Democrats’ $275K. The top spender of the election was former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft. 

a bar chart showing Kentucky gubernatorial primary spending by advertiser

Craft had a clear advantage in spending. She nearly tripled the spending of her fellow Republican candidates and made up nearly 50% of total primary spending. She spent $6.7M, while all other advertisers combined to spend $7.2M. Craft’s campaign was the first to run traditional ads (broadcast, cable, and radio), and she was the only Republican candidate with ads airing from the start of the year through the middle of March. Craft had a three month head start in spending over her opponents.

a line chart showing Kentucky gubernatorial primary over time

Craft has improved her polling numbers throughout the year. An April 13th poll by Emerson and FOX56 found Craft only six points behind frontrunner Daniel Cameron, compared to a January Mason Dixon poll that found Craft 20 points behind Cameron. However, a recent Emerson and FOX56 poll released on May 14th found that Craft has backslid and is now 15 points behind Cameron. 

Craft’s ads aimed to compare her against her opponents.  In this ad, Craft labeled her opponents as “career politicians” and featured an image of Cameron smiling next to Mitch McConnell. Craft’s ads often highlighted hot button issues. In February, when the nation’s focus was on the discovery of Chinese spy balloons flying over the country, she released an ad featuring said balloons, using it as an opportunity to brag about her status of being sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party. More recently, Craft released ads taking on the ongoing culture wars surrounding public schools, claiming Kentucky’s schools are “under attack from woke bureaucrats” who seek to “force woke ideology into the classroom.” The ad ends with a pledge that she will dismantle the state’s department of education, a move she has vowed to do if elected governor. 

Issue groups made up 35% of total spending in the primary. Bluegrass Freedom Action, which released ads supporting Daniel Cameron as a Trump-endorsed candidate, was the highest spending group. Cameron was recently questioned about Trump’s endorsement after some of the former President’s legal troubles, but Cameron has been vocal about his continued support of Trump. The second highest spending issue group, Commonwealth PAC, attacked Cameron. The Republican group spent $1.5M opposing Cameron by labeling him as “soft on crime”. Commonwealth PAC’s most recent ad claimed Cameron wanted to eliminate Cash Bail in the state and that Cameron is “Kentucky’s soft on crime teddy bear”. The ad started airing on April 11. For a look at five influential ads in the primary, check out Meet the Press’ new blog that utilizes our data.

In the primary, both the Lexington and Louisville markets each saw at least $4.7M spent. The two markets saw over two thirds of total primary spending. While it is common to see Kentucky advertisers spend in markets such as Nashville or Evansville, this is one of the few times that a Kentucky statewide election has seen spending in the St Louis and Dayton markets. So far, Craft has spent $3,500 in St. Louis while the Pro-Beshear group Protect, Preserve, and Defend PAC has spent almost $5K in Dayton.  The winner of Kentucky gubernatorial primary on the GOP side will go on to face Governor Beshear this November in a race that the Cook Political Report rates as “Lean D”. With a competitive race, the Kentucky gubernatorial general is shaping up to see significant spending throughout the rest of the year leading to election day.

If you want to read more about another primary happening today, check out our blog on the Philadelphia mayoral primary.

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