A scratch sheet on Kentucky politics for Derby visitors

OK, we’re back to normal. Partly.

The Kentucky Derby is back where it has been since the Great Depression, on the first Saturday in May, and this column is back in its annual saddle, to give Derby visitors — now more online than in person — a snapshot of Kentucky’s always interesting (and sometimes depressing) political landscape.

Al Cross

In a nation where politics is more nationalized and polarized than ever, due mainly to the media environment and Donald Trump, we’re probably still Trump country. A national poll taken as he was leaving the presidency gave him a 53% job-approval rating among Kentuckians; 43% disapproved, and the error margin was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

But Trump and Kentucky’s main national player, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, have been at odds since the Electoral College voted, and especially since Trump rioters invaded the Capitol. Trump called McConnell “a stone cold loser” and a dumb SOB (not using the acronym), and a few local Republican parties have called on McConnell to resign, but he ignores them and focuses on doing what it takes to regain the Senate majority in 2022.

Kentucky’s other senator, libertarian Republican Rand Paul, will be on the 2022 ballot – likely with Democrat Charles Booker, a former state legislator from Louisville who rode the wave of Black Lives Matter protests last spring to nearly upset superbly funded Amy McGrath, who went on to lose to McConnell in spectacular fashion. Paul is increasingly eccentric, but is in tune with Trump; Booker is an engaging candidate but almost surely too liberal for Kentucky, and he and his fellow African Americans are only 8.5% of the population, and so many moderates have left his party that he’s the only Democrat known to be exploring the race.

Democrats in Kentucky are at a low ebb, except at the top of state government. Gov. Andy Beshear won narrowly in 2019 because his father was governor in 2007-2015 and Republican incumbent Matt Bevin was better at making enemies than friends. Republicans saw Beshear as easy pickings in 2023, but is use of his emergency powers in the pandemic met with approval of most Kentuckians, so Republican calculations have changed.

As you might expect in a party led by McConnell, the calculation has become more about money, as in getting enough to tear Beshear down. That seems to be the main logic behind the putative candidacy of Kelly Craft, whom Trump named ambassador to Canada and then ambassador to the United Nations. She has never run for office but is the wife of Joe Craft, who is one of America’s sharpest coal and energy executives.

The Crafts have raised millions for McConnell and other Republicans, including First District U.S. Rep. James Comer, who went to Congress after losing the 2015 gubernatorial primary to Bevin by 83 votes. He would still like to be governor, but that may be deferred by Kelly Craft and other events; Comer has said his heart is still in the state capital of Frankfort, but his head is in the House, where he is ranking Republican on the high-profile Committee on Oversight and Reform and would probably become chairman if Republicans took the House in 2022. He’s been on Fox News a lot lately, so he seems increasingly focused on establishing his stature with his colleagues, who elect committee chairs.

If Craft doesn’t answer the call to the post, or even if she does, there are several other GOP prospects, such as Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who has been in some of the Republican lawsuits against Beshear’s emergency orders. The GOP’s point man on that front, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, is a Black protégé of McConnell who seems to be aiming at succeeding his mentor in 2026 — if not earlier; the legislature just passed a law requiring governors to fill Senate vacancies with someone of the same party as the departed senator and nominated by party officials.

McConnell asked for the law, but is surely not contemplating resignation; at 79, he’s hedging his actuarial bets. And Cameron needs re-election in 2023 to quash complaints about his handling of the grand jury in the Breonna Taylor shooting case, brought freshly to the fore with the new Justice Department probe of Louisville police.

The most intriguing news on the 2023 front lately is that Bevin is “trying to line up a return to Frankfort, sources say.” So wrote Nick Storm, a good cable-TV reporter who just started a new site, Kentucky Fried Politics. Perhaps Bevin, who challenged McConnell in 2014, thinks he could be the Trump-backed candidate in a primary with the McConnell-backed Craft. 

Beshear surely relishes the chance to beat Bevin again, and if even if Bevin lost, his money and mouth could make trouble for Republicans. So, count us as another state where politics may depend partly on Trump.

(Al Cross is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. This column first ran on KyForward.)