The KY-Gov Republican Primary is the State’s Second Biggest Horserace this May

With less than a month to go until the GOP primary for Kentucky’s gubernatorial election, it’s a closely watched contest to determine who will take on incumbent Governor Andy Beshear in the fall. With the field fully formed, the money is already pouring in, even though the full force of the nation’s attention may not materialize until November.

A field of three candidates have emerged as top contenders in the contest for the top job in Kentucky. Combined, they have raised tens of millions of dollars — that’s more than a third of Vermont’s quarterly GDP. But is green what matters when it comes to winning a chance to turn the bluegrass state red? We’re going to find out.

The Big Three


Daniel Cameron, the prominent elected Attorney General, entered this race with the advantage of notoriety. He leads in Emerson’s horserace poll, and with a broad base of support, it’s difficult to argue against his strong position. Through the campaign and Super PAC avenues, the Cameron camp has raised nearly $3.3 million, and he enters the final stretch with $1.5 million cash on hand. The two candidates at his heels are former Trump-appointed UN Ambassador Kelly Craft (whose husband is Joe Craft, a coal billionaire) and Ryan Quarles, the sitting Agricultural Commissioner. 


Cameron’s closest opponent, Kelly Craft, was not yet a household name upon entering the race, but this quickly changed thanks to massive investments in advertising. Since announcing, she has raised 10 million dollars, the bulk of which came from her own personal wealth. Her campaign reported $450,000 cash on hand, but given her significant personal fortune, it’s not inconceivable that this amount could quickly climb higher.

With a month to go until the primary, she also now boasts an 87 percent name ID rate. Troublingly, however, it is not clear that this immense investment has made her anything close to the favorite, because while this deluge of communication spending has bought her widespread recognition, it may not have necessarily come with positive sentiment. It would be a mistake to count her out, but she has spent $10 million dollars only to be running a consistent second, and one cannot fault outside observers for seeing that as somewhat damning on its face. 

Craft’s net favorability resembles Cameron’s only among voters over 65 (nearly a third of voters over 65 say they plan to vote for her.) Still, 20 percent of voters overall and more than a fifth of voters under the age of 50 are aware of Craft, but have yet to form an opinion on her.


Ryan Quarles, on the other hand, is the sitting Agricultural Commissioner of the state, and boasts a 79 percent name ID, despite only having spent about $300,000. He will enter the final stretch of the campaign with $900,000 cash on hand, all while buoyed by an outsized level of support among voters under 50.

The Undecideds

With more than one fifth of voters undecided, this is a fluid electorate. Who these undecided voters break towards will determine how the election ultimately plays out. The undecided voters consist of two groups: voters under 50 and those with a postgraduate education. The combination of these groups could be key to a Quarles upset.

Voters under 50

According to Emerson, undecided voters skewed younger—20 percent were undecided overall, including 24 percent of voters under 50, and 30 percent of voters with postgraduate degrees. Emerson expects voters under 50 to make up a plurality (38 percent) of the GOP primary electorate. With 24 percent of these voters undecided, that’s a potential 9 points in final margin that remain up in the air. 

What we have learned with regard to age and education distribution within each candidate’s existing base of support may give us clues as to the candidates best positioned to pull ahead in the coming weeks. For Craft and Quarles, the two candidates most hard-up for those undecided votes, we’re seeing significant divergence among age groups. Voters over 65 disproportionately favor Craft, while Quarles’ coalition is defined by support from voters under 50.

It’s important to ask the issue profile that might move this group’s choices; 46 percent of voters under 50 say the economy is the most important issue, compared to 36 percent of voters over 65. Further, they are the only age bucket fully in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use —an issue only Quarles has full-throatedly endorsed (net +11 points support, compared to net -40 for voters over 65). 


Postgraduates are another group over-indexing for undecided vote choice. These voters are predictably clustered in the major metros (such as Central Kentucky’s Louisville, Lexington, and associated bedroom communities, but also in far western Paducah and Bowling Green). While Emerson expects they will make up 10 percent of the electorate, a full thirty percent remain undecided. In a close primary, that 3 points up-for-grabs could make or break a margin of victory.  

On issues, postgraduates over-index for the perceived importance of crime and education, and significantly under-index on the importance placed on restricting gender reassignment treatment, a hot button issue in this past state legislative session. 

As candidates have formed coalitions, Cameron’s support is nearly homogenous among many demographic breaks. One exception to this uniformity is his disproportionate support among postgraduates. Perhaps solidifying his potential hold even further, postgraduates are also disproportionately averse to Kelly Craft. 

History repeating itself? 

According to a PPP poll conducted only a couple weeks before the 2015 primary, eventual winner Matt Bevin was tied within the margin of error, but received outsized support from voters under 45, who were disproportionately the most undecided group (24 percent were undecided, versus 20 percent overall). Comer led with 28 percent, supported by 30 percent of voters over 65. 

The final stretch of the campaign was marked by negative messaging, ultimately to the detriment of Heiner. Heiner was broadly perceived by voters to be running a more negative campaign of the three: 33 percent said that he was, 36 said he was not. In contrast, 17 percent of voters said that Bevin was running a negative campaign, 47 percent said he was not.

Bevin eked out a victory by a little under 100 votes, over performing that final poll by nearly 8 points to beat Comer 32.91 percent to 32.89 percent. Heiner finished third, with 27.10 percent. 

We’ll See

A heavy break of undecideds in favor of Quarles isn’t out of the question — should that happen, the break could put him neck-and-neck with Craft. Cameron’s consensus coalition of supporters, one which is uniform across demographic groups, is a comfortable place for any leading candidate. 

Kentuckians can expect an exhausting deluge of targeted media in the coming weeks, as candidates play for last minute shifts in the dynamic.

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