Former President Donald Trump is facing the latest test of his sway over Republican voters ahead of Kentucky’s gubernatorial primary election on Tuesday.
Trump endorsed Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the race to challenge incumbent Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, in November in the deeply conservative state. However, polls show former United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft gaining ground over the Trump-backed candidate in a race that could serve as a benchmark of his influence prior to the presidential primaries.
During the midterm elections last year, Republican voters sought after Trump’s endorsement during the primaries, hoping his support would draw his conservative voter base to their campaigns. His endorsement proved helpful in many cases, elevating a slate of right-wing candidates who embraced his style of politics, as well as his claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020, to the general election. However, many of these candidates in key races struggled to win support from moderate voters, who turned against Trump since he first took office—delivering stronger-than-expected results for Democrats in November.
Trump was an early backer of Cameron, announcing his support for his campaign last June, praising him as “absolutely outstanding in every way” in a press release announcing that endorsement.
“At every level, Daniel has stood out, he will be a Great Governor of Kentucky, and has my Complete and Total Endorsement,” Trump wrote.
Cameron started the campaign as the clear frontrunner, leading every early poll by a wide margin. But the primary election could be closer than first expected as Craft, who served in her role during the Trump administration, has risen in the polls.
An Emerson College poll conducted from April 10 to 11 found Cameron leading Craft by only 6 percentage points. Thirty percent of “very likely” Republican primary voters said they planned to cast a vote for Cameron, while 24 percent said they supported Craft. Roughly 25 percent said they would back another candidate, and 21 percent said they remained undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Newsweek reached out to Cameron’s campaign for comment via email.
D. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, told Newsweek on Saturday that all major candidates in the race are “competing over the Trump mantle.”
“Cameron has the Trump endorsement, Craft has the Trump issues, and [Eric] Deters has the Trump style. Meanwhile, Craft has tried to undermine Cameron using his clear ties to McConnell, which could erode whatever ability Trump normally would have had to play kingmaker in our primary,” he said.
Even if Cameron loses the primary, Voss said he “wouldn’t stop believing” that Trump has influence over Republican politics at-large.
Kentucky’s gubernatorial primary is among the first major elections since the midterms, and since Trump announced that he is running for president again in 2024. Meanwhile, Republican businessman Vivek Ramaswamy who is also one of Trump’s presidential opponents, has endorsed Craft.
Whoever prevails in the Republican primary is likely to face Beshear in the general election, as he is widely expected to win the Democratic nomination. Although Kentucky is seen as a heavily Republican-leaning state in federal elections, as Trump won the state by nearly 26 points in 2020, Democrats have historically seen more success in statewide elections.
In 2019, Beshear defeated former Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, by approximately 0.4 percentage points.
Questions about whether Trump’s influence among Republican voters diminishing arose following the midterms, as some conservatives called to move on from him after an underwhelming election. However, Trump remains the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary, with his polling increasing in the weeks since his indictment in March.
Update 05/13/2023 5:11 p.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from D. Stephen Voss.