FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed paperwork Wednesday to enter the state's 2023 governor’s race, hoping to ride his fights against abortion and the Democratic incumbent's coronavirus restrictions into the governor’s office.
Cameron, flagged by GOP leaders as a rising star in the party, made history in 2019 as the first African American to serve as the state’s attorney general. Now he’s trying to blaze another trail in his bid to deny Gov. Andy Beshear a second term. But first Cameron will have to navigate a tough Republican primary that includes fellow statewide officeholders now seeking Kentucky's top political job.
Cameron, a former University of Louisville football player, said in a campaign video that the Bluegrass State “needs a new coach, one who will build us up, not divide us.” Beshear has waged a series of policy battles with the state's Republican-dominated legislature. But Cameron drew criticism for his handling of an investigation into the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in 2020, and the polarizing matter could garner more scrutiny as Cameron seeks higher office.
In his opening campaign pitch, Cameron targeted Beshear's COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and gatherings. Cameron also promised to “stand up for life” — a reference to his anti-abortion views.
“Andy Beshear is not uniting Kentucky," Cameron said in the video. "This governor does not reflect our values. He’s never going to change, so we have to change our governor.”
Beshear — a church deacon who frequently cites Scripture in defending his policies — maintains that his aggressive approach saved lives. His restrictions were in place mostly when COVID-19 vaccines were not available or not yet widely distributed — though lawmakers later severely limited his ability to respond when virus cases surged. Beshear says his actions reflected guidance from the White House coronavirus task force when Republican Donald Trump was president.
The governor vetoed an abortion bill this year that imposed sweeping new restrictions on the state's two abortion providers, regulated the dispensing of abortion pills and would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lawmakers overrode his veto and the measure is now being challenged in federal court. Cameron's office is defending the law.
Democrats on Wednesday defended the governor's leadership during the pandemic and the aftermath of deadly tornadoes that ripped through parts of western Kentucky last year. They also pointed to Beshear's stewardship of the state's growing economy, highlighted by the announcement of job-creating new plants in the state by Ford Motor Company and others.
State Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge called it “a clear contrast” to Cameron's record, and said voters will have a clear choice if Cameron "emerges from the messy Republican primary.”
The attorney general signaled his intention to run for governor in paperwork filed Wednesday with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
Now rivals, Beshear and Cameron have at times followed parallel paths to power. Cameron succeeded Beshear as attorney general, and both used the state's top law enforcement position to launch bids for governor.
They have been frequent adversaries during their terms. Cameron led the legal fight against Beshear's pandemic restrictions. Cameron last year won the case in the Kentucky Supreme Court, clearing the way for new laws enacted by the GOP legislature to limit the governor’s emergency powers.
Cameron burnished his anti-abortion credentials in a high-profile abortion case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the attorney general could continue defending a restriction on abortion rights that had been struck down by lower courts. The underlying issue in the case was a blocked state law that abortion rights supporters say would have effectively banned a standard abortion method in the second trimester of pregnancy.
Cameron drew national scrutiny for his handling of the probe into Taylor's shooting death, a botched late-night drug raid of her apartment in which no drugs were found. Her death and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests for racial justice.
During a 2020 news conference to announce a grand jury’s findings, Cameron said jurors “agreed” that homicide charges were not warranted against the officers, because they were fired upon. That prompted three of the jurors to come forward and dispute 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. Last year, in an interview with the AP, Cameron said those jurors can speak for themselves, but he said the grand jury “ultimately” decided the charges in the case.
Although demonstrators had gathered outside Cameron’s home to demand justice for Taylor, no officers were ever charged for their roles in her death.
Cameron, who landed a prime time speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention, has close ties to the Bluegrass State's most powerful Republican — U.S. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell — and once served as the senator’s legal counsel.
Cameron enters what looms as a crowded field of Republicans running to unseat Beshear in next year's top-of-the-ticket race. Among those already in the governor's race on the GOP side are state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Auditor Mike Harmon and retired attorney Eric Deters. Several other Republicans are considering bids for governor. The jockeying for governor could overshadow this year's elections in Kentucky.
Recent polling shows Beshear remains popular in Republican-trending Kentucky. During his term, he landed the state’s two largest-ever economic development projects — both battery plant developments.
Associated Press writers Piper Hudspeth Blackburn and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.