LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Flagged as a rising Republican star who worked for Mitch McConnell and pitched Donald Trump’s campaign to Black voters, Daniel Cameron could have taken a cautious approach and run for reelection as attorney general.
Instead, he took a career-defining risk by plunging into Kentucky’s competitive race for governor against a popular Democratic incumbent and a crowded field of GOP primary opponents. If he wins, the state’s first Black attorney general would become its first Black governor.
But Cameron’s pursuit of Kentucky’s top political office has turned bumpy. Instead of breezing to his party’s nomination, he’s embroiled in a tough primary fight, especially with former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, who has attacked Cameron in an ad blitz backed by her family’s fortune.
The two are among a dozen candidates — including two other statewide officeholders, Ryan Quarles and Mike Harmon — competing for the GOP nomination in the May 16 primary.
Awaiting the primary winner will be Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has received consistently high voter approval ratings. He garnered considerable goodwill in shepherding the GOP-trending state through devastating tornadoes, flooding and, more recently, a mass shooting at a Louisville bank in which a close friend of his was slain. Beshear, the son of Steve Beshear, a former two-term governor, has presided over record-setting economic development growth.
Cameron’s term as attorney general has been marked by a series of legal challenges against state and national Democratic policies, Cameron drew scrutiny for his handling of an investigation into the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in 2020 during a botched late-night drug raid of the Black woman’s Louisville apartment in which no drugs were found.
Cameron says Taylor’s death was a tragedy. But he’s turned protests over the case into an appeal for support from Republican voters, portraying it as an example of his steadfastness in the face of pressure.
“We can have leadership that, when they protest on your front lawn, will still do what’s right without fear or favor,” he said at a recent campaign rally in suburban Louisville.
Offering a staunchly conservative message, Cameron mixes talk of faith and values with core GOP principles — supporting gun rights, fossil fuel production and a crackdown on crime and illegal drugs, while opposing abortion and pushing to give parents more say in school policies.
He plays up his legal showdown with Beshear that essentially halted the governor’s COVID-era restrictions. Cameron says those restrictions amounted to executive overreach. Beshear says his actions saved lives. Cameron also points to his legal defense of the state’s anti-abortion laws.
It’s what separates him from his GOP rivals, he said.
“There’s a lot of folks right now that are going to talk the talk, but there’s only a few of us that have actually walked the walk,” Cameron said at the rally.
Cameron has star appeal within Republican circles. The former University of Louisville football player is known for his easygoing demeanor. After a recent rally, a long line of would-be voters waited to chat with him or snap a photo. Cameron supporter Carl Owens said he liked Cameron’s anti-abortion stand and his fight against the governor’s pandemic policies.
“Gov. Beshear seems like a nice guy, but he’s made terrible decisions,” Owens said.
Cameron has landed Trump’s coveted endorsement in the GOP primary. In 2020, Cameron was the one who made a pitch for Trump — calling on the support of Black voters in a speech at the Republican National Convention.
In winning Trump’s backing, Cameron bridged an ever-expanding gulf between the ex-president and McConnell, the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky. Cameron is a protege of McConnell, having worked as the senator’s legal counsel.
Cameron says those relationships prove he can unite the party in its quest to reclaim the governorship.
“We’re going to have to have a lot of different factions that are willing to support our candidate,” Cameron said on a “Flyover Country” podcast with Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator. “And I think I’m best situated to get all of those people on board.”
At a recent Craft rally in Elizabethtown, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Louisville, Bobbie Coleman was still pondering her choice for governor but said it wouldn’t be Cameron.
“I love Trump, don’t understand his endorsement,” she said.
The GOP campaign has turned combative. Cameron has taken hits from a flurry of ads from Craft’s campaign and a group supporting her candidacy. The attacks focused on criminal justice, immigration and coal in trying to soften support for Cameron. The pro-Craft group portrayed Cameron as an “establishment teddy bear” in claiming he’s not tough enough as attorney general.
A pro-Cameron group swung back, including with perhaps the ultimate zinger in a GOP primary — noting that Craft worked for Trump but the ex-president’s endorsement went to Cameron. Craft wasn’t yet a candidate but was rumored to be getting in the race when Trump made his endorsement.
Cameron says he was tested when demonstrators demanding justice for Taylor gathered outside his home. At Cameron’s recent Louisville-area rally, Republican state Rep. Kevin Bratcher said the attorney general “stood strong” and ”never changed once” throughout the ordeal.
Cameron’s handling of the Taylor case left many Black Louisville activists feeling misled. In announcing a grand jury’s findings in Taylor’s death, Cameron said jurors “agreed” that homicide charges were not warranted against the officers, because they were fired upon. Three of the jurors disputed Cameron’s account, arguing that Cameron’s staff limited their scope and did not give them an opportunity to consider homicide charges against the police in Taylor’s death.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cameron said the grand jury “ultimately” decided the charges in the case.
One aspect that rarely comes up in the campaign is Cameron’s status as a trailblazing Black candidate. Even winning the nomination would be a history-making event for his party in Kentucky, though that’s something he rarely mentions and almost never dwells on publicly unless asked.
“Folks don’t care what you look like,” he said on the podcast. “They care about your values.”