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Kentucky Governor Contest Remains Undecided

Daniel Cameron was supposed to have the Republican nomination all sewn up at this point, but he, instead, finds himself under attack. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's legislating grinds to a halt and the motivating power of hatred.

Daniel Cameron
Daniel Cameron (TNS)
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Kentucky Governor Contest Remains Undecided: By this point, Daniel Cameron was supposed to have the Republican nomination all sewn up. He entered the race a year ago, quickly gaining the key endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Cameron, the state attorney general, had previously served as legal counsel for U.S. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who may not be super-popular with Republicans nationwide – or even those in Kentucky – but remains a potent political actor in the state.

Ahead of the May 16 primary, however, Cameron finds himself under constant attack from Kelly Craft, a former ambassador to the United Nations under Trump. Craft and her billionaire husband have spent millions on ads attacking Cameron for supposedly being weak on crime and woke on politics. “Let's talk about the attorney general appreciating Merrick Garland coming into Louisville, this woke DOJ,” Craft said during a debate on Monday, referring to a Justice Department investigation of the Louisville police.

The reality is that there’s not much daylight on substance between Cameron and Craft, whether the issue is crime or coal. Perhaps that’s why Craft’s attacks have gotten both personal and over the top. One ad, sponsored by a political action committee funded by Craft’s husband, tied Cameron to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg over the issue of bail reform. (Both Cameron and Bragg are Black prosecutors but don’t exactly share the same legal worldview.) “Cameron agrees with the George Soros-backed D.A. who prosecuted Trump,” the ad stated.

A pair of ads from the PAC have also compared Cameron to a teddy bear, since he’s so “soft” on crime. “The teddy bear has become a joke,” says Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. “Cameron leaned into it, and other Republicans have made jokes.”

One possible outcome is that the two front-runners will attack each other so often that they both succeed in making the other unelectable, allowing one of the many other GOP candidates to emerge victorious as the nominee. That happened eight years ago, when the two leading contenders tore each other apart, allowing businessman Matt Bevin to come out ahead in the 2015 primary by 83 votes.

The best bet for history repeating itself in this way is probably state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. “Craft and Cameron are running media campaigns,” Voss says. “Quarles is taking an old-school Kentucky approach of getting endorsements and building relations with courthouse officials around the state.”

Many prominent Kentucky Republicans – including McConnell – have remained neutral in the race. Some may fear angering the Crafts, who after all are major party donors in the state. The race has barely been polled, but at least to this point, for all the attacks, Cameron appears to retain the advantage. “Cameron was clearly the front-runner, and still is, but Kelly Craft has cut into his lead,” says University of Louisville political scientist Dewey Clayton.

Whoever ends up winning the nomination will start the fall campaign as an underdog against Andy Beshear, the Democrat who unseated Bevin in 2019. Despite being the governor of a red state, Beshear’s approval ratings are in the 60s, making him the most popular Democratic governor in the country.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (Shutterstock)
Oklahoma Legislating Grinds to a Halt: Throughout most of his time in office, Oklahoma Republican Kevin Stitt has been viewed as a weak “May governor.” He hasn’t enjoyed tremendous success getting his way during the final month of sessions, when the budget gets passed and major bills become law (or die). This May, things could become even more frustrating for him.

Stitt is insisting that the Legislature pass his priority legislation on tax cuts, teacher salaries and school choice. If they don’t, he warned in a letter to the state Senate last week, he’ll veto every bill that originates in that chamber. He made a strong down payment, vetoing 20 bills on a single day. “He’s not terribly flexible,” says Richard Johnson, a political scientist at Oklahoma City University. “He does not compromise and he holds grudges.”

Some of the bills Stitt has vetoed not only passed both chambers but passed unanimously. If they wanted to, legislators could easily override him and make his threat empty. But it’s far from clear that they’ll sing in such unison. This year, state House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat haven’t always gotten on great. They’ve played some tit-for-tat, with each chamber at points refusing to pass more than one bill at a time that originated in the other chamber. “It's hard to tell if the overrides are going to be there,” says Michael Crespin, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. “The House might not want to put the effort into overriding the veto on Senate bills, depending on which piece of legislation it is.”

None of this is necessary. The various parties aren’t all that far apart on the substance of key bills. The state has sufficient funds to pay for the governor’s plans, which should certainly make things easier. But there’s only so much Stitt can do to force the hands of legislators. Oklahoma’s governor has relatively weak powers. The Legislature actually provided Stitt with more during his first term, giving him greater authority over appointments than prior governors. Some legislators now have buyer’s remorse, with the state attorney general launching an investigation earlier this year into fraud and a sweetheart deal involving a Stitt appointee. Last week, a Senate panel rejected two of Stitt’s cabinet picks.

Naturally, that did not warm the governor’s heart. Stitt is not the sort of politician who seeks to charm his opponents. He won election as governor in his first race for any office. Not only does Stitt lack political experience, but so have his recent chiefs of staff. Like a lot of former CEOs, Stitt was accustomed to being surrounded by people who, while they may not have always agreed with him, generally tried to give him the answers he wanted. That’s not happening now.

State senators are, of course, elected independently. In Oklahoma, they appear ready to tell the governor he can forget about getting his way, even if that means some of their own wish list gets blocked in the process.
President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden (TNS)
The Motivating Power of Hatred: President Biden’s approval ratings remain historically weak and a majority of Democrats wish he wouldn’t run for a second term. Yet most of the commentary around his re-election announcement last week emphasized his strong chances. What’s helping Biden out is one of the most powerful forces in contemporary politics – negative partisanship, or the belief that the other side is always worse.

“There’s not much question that the public is deeply divided,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “We see that reflected in attitudes toward the opposing party and its leaders, which are extremely negative.”

Back in 2012, Abramowitz wrote a book called The Polarized Public. When that book came out, there was still lively debate in political science circles about whether the public was in fact polarized, or whether it was only politicians and professional activists who were polarized. There’s less debate now. “We have the highest levels of partisan voting and straight-ticket voting that we’ve seen at any time since we have data, which is the 1950s,” Abramowitz says. “Voters are just much less willing to cross party lines.”

There is still some argument about whether Republican and Democratic voters are divided ideologically, or just line up with their own party in a more emotional or tribal fashion. Abramowitz argues that although there are occasional exceptions – such as voters in red states approving progressive ballot measures on matters such as minimum wage increases and Medicaid expansion – supporters of the two parties hold opposite and opposing views on nearly every issue of importance, including abortion, taxation, gun control and climate change.

Just listing the issues where Republicans and Democrats disagree feels like stating the obvious: Americans are deeply divided. Half the public has hated the last five presidents during their respective periods in office. Biden has proven no exception. The only question is whether independents will hate his opponent more, which may well happen if he gets a rematch against Trump. “Trump is the most polarizing political leader in modern history,” Abramowitz says.
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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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