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Kentucky governor’s race on track for new fundraising record

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Tuesday, October 31, 2023   

By Anna Massoglia for OpenSecrets.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for Kentucky News Connection reporting for the OpenSecrets-Public News Service Collaboration

The Kentucky governor's race has been nothing short of a financial juggernaut, with gubernatorial candidates collectively raking in more than $36.8 million in contributions, a new OpenSecrets analysis found.

The booming fundraising puts the race on track to set a new record in the state. The most ever collectively raised by gubernatorial candidates in a prior election year was $37.1 million in 2007.

As money continues to pour into this year's gubernatorial race, incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has a hefty cash advantage after raising over three times as much as his Republican rival in the general election, Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Beshear is leading the pack in fundraising with an eye-popping $17.3 million raised so far this election. About $10 million of that was raised for the general election, new campaign finance disclosures filed Sept. 12 show. The incumbent governor's campaign has already spent more than $10.7 million on the general, with $4.2 million cash on hand at the start of September.

After winning the Republican primary in May to become the first major-party Black nominee for governor in Kentucky's history, Cameron raised about $2.8 million for the general election. His campaign's total fundraising this cycle has topped $4.6 million, according to new campaign finance filings submitted Sept. 12.

During the general election period, Cameron has spent about $1.4 million and had about $1.4 million cash on hand at the start of September.

While incumbents and top fundraisers are often at an advantage in elections, Cameron has won races where he was outraised before.

The top fundraiser in the 12-candidate Republican primary field was Kelly Craft, who served as United Nations ambassador in former President Donald Trump's administration, though her campaign was heavily self-funded. Craft's campaign brought in over $12.3 million ahead of the May primary including the candidate's self-financing - over $10 million more than Cameron raised during the primary. But Trump ultimately endorsed the Kentucky attorney general, and he went on to win the nomination.

Both Beshear and Cameron took money from political action committees. But Beshear has benefitted from nearly twice as much PAC money as Cameron, with the candidates having taken $134,000 and $69,900 respectively

The bulk of Beshear's political action committee contributions during the 60-day pre-general election period have come from PACs affiliated with unions. He has also taken from several corporate PACs affiliated with companies in the healthcare industry including $2,100 from Eli Lilly And Company's PAC, $1,000 from Genesis Healthcare Corp PAC, $2,000 from Molina Healthcare's PAC, $2000 from Centene Corp. PAC and $2,000 from Elevance Health PAC.

Beshear also took $2,000 from a PAC affiliated with WalMart, $2,100 from Duke Energy's PAC, $2,100 from Deloitte PAC, $2,100 from CSX's PAC, $2,000 from Dell Technologies' PAC, $2,100 from Atmos Energy Corp's PAC and $2,100 from a PAC affiliated with Nucor, a steel company.

Kentucky's identity is intrinsically linked to bourbon, and the alcoholic beverage industry wields influence far beyond barrels of booze. Beshear's campaign tapped into this, securing financial support from key industry players including $2,100 - the state's campaign contribution cap - from Beam Suntory's PAC, $2,100 from the Kentucky Distillers' Association's PAC and $2,100.00 from Diago North America's PAC.

Cameron also enjoyed his share of corporate PAC support. His campaign's top corporate contributors include PACs affiliated with Koch Industries, Home Depot and Lifepoint Health, which each gave $2,100 to his campaign - the legal limit in the state.

Cameron also received $2,100 from Save America, Trump's PAC.

Some PACs played both sides. For example, the Kentucky Land Title Association gave $2,100 to each candidate.

Political ads flood Kentucky governor's race

Political advertising has flooded the airwaves in Kentucky as a part of the hotly-contested gubernatorial race with abortion emerging as a key issue.

On Sept. 20, Beshear's campaign released an attack ad targeting Cameron on abortion rights.

"Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it's like to stand in my shoes," the woman in the ad says, sharing a story about being sexually assaulted by her stepfather.

Earlier this month, Beshear launched another ad campaign describing Cameron's previously stated opposition to exceptions for rape as "extreme" and "dangerous."

While Cameron previously expressed opposition to exceptions to abortion bans, he indicated on Sept. 18 that he would sign legislation that allows exceptions for rape and incest. Cameron also announced that he supports birth control.

Planned Parenthood Action Kentucky, a PAC largely funded by the political arm of Planned Parenthood's national organization, also launched a six-figure ad campaign attacking Cameron over his anti-abortion rights stance.

While Beshear has an edge over Cameron when it comes to campaign fundraising and the support of several PACs, outside groups have poured big money into the race supporting both candidates.

School Freedom Fund, a super PAC allied with the conservative Club For Growth, is one group that has been heavily involved in opposing Beshear with spending reaching around $3 million.

The super PAC recently launched an ad claiming that Beshear's decision to release some prisoners early during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed a man convicted of sodomizing a child to "roam free" - a claim that has been debunked. Multiple ads bankolled by School Freedom Fund have raise questions and been debunked.

School Freedom Fund was almost entirely bankrolled by Jeff Yass, the billionaire founder of Susquehanna International Group, during the 2022 cycle. The School Freedom Fund super PAC is also affiliated with Club For Growth, a pro-free market group co-founded by billionaire GOP megadonor Harlan Crow - whose close relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received recent scrutiny - and largely funded by Yass and Republican-aligned billionaire shipping magnate Richard Uihlein.

Bluegrass Freedom Action, another PAC supporting Cameron's run, spent more than $4.4 million to help Cameron in the Republican primary and has continued to spend during the general election - racking up more than $1.43 million in ad buys by the first week of September, according to Lexington Herald-Leader reporting using numbers from ad tracking firm Medium Buying.

The largest contributor to the pro-Cameron PAC has been the Concord Fund, a "dark money" group previously named Judicial Crisis Network that does not disclose its donors. Concord Fund is part of a shape-shifting network of secretly-funded conservative nonprofits working to reshape the federal judiciary. It is connected to Leonard Leo, a powerful leader in the conservative legal movement who helped shape Trump's unprecedented effort to stack the federal judiciary with conservative judges.

Defending Bluegrass Values, a PAC tied to the Democratic Governors Association, has also raised and spent big money on the Kentucky gubernatorial race. The PAC has reported more than $4 million in contributions in campaign finance filings and has made $13.7 million in ad buys supporting Beshear's reelection campaign as of the first week of September - more than every other PAC spending on the race combined, according to Lexington Herald-Leader reporting.

Update: As of October 30, 2023, Kentucky's gubernatorial candidates have now raised in more than $44 million dollars in contributions, according to a new analysis by OpenSecrets.

Incumbent Democratic Governor Andy Beshear has now raised more than $23.1 million, and over $15 million of that is for the general election.

Republican candidate Daniel Cameron has now raised about $4.7 million for the general election. His campaign's total fundraising this cycle has topped $6.5 million, according to campaign finance filings.

Anna Massoglia wrote this story for OpenSecrets.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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