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Kentucky’s gubernatorial race breaks records, exceeds $44 million

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Monday, November 27, 2023   

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

Kentucky’s 2023 gubernatorial race set a nominal state fundraising record, with candidates in the primary and general election raising more than $44.6 million, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign finance reports. 

Independent political groups spent an additional $45.3 million, mostly on negative ads targeting incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear or his Republican rival, Attorney General Daniel Cameron. The latest campaign finance filings cover political spending through Oct. 23.

When adjusted for inflation, the gubernatorial race ranks among the most expensive in Kentucky history — and is the latest high-profile state election to be awash in cash. Virginia state legislative races this year also broke state fundraising records, OpenSecrets found

Beshear, who won reelection in the Republican-leaning state, raised more than $23.1 million — three times as much as Cameron, reports show. 

Cameron, who became Kentucky’s first major-party Black nominee for governor following an expensive primary contest, raised about $6.5 million. 

While the race tightened in the final weeks of the campaign, Beshear won a second term on Nov. 7 by a comfortable margin, defeating Cameron with 53% of the vote, according to the Kentucky Secretary of State. 

Since this will be Beshear’s second consecutive term as governor, he must wait at least one election cycle before running for governor again. Kentucky is one of 26 states that allow governors to serve an unlimited number of four-year terms.

Beshear’s top funder was the Kentucky Democratic Party. 

Both the Kentucky Democratic Party and Beshear are now under civil investigation by state campaign finance regulators for allegedly accepting political contributions over the legal limit from Randall Weddle, the mayor of London, Ky. 

In June, after reporting by the Kentucky Lantern, Beshear announced that his campaign and the Kentucky Democratic party inadvertently took $202,000 in “excess” contributions from Weddle but noted the money was refunded. A Kentucky Registry of Election Finance notice sent Monday confirms an investigation is ongoing. 

Beshear also received substantial support from labor unions, which accounted for most contributions to his campaign from political action committees. 

Like Beshear, Cameron’s biggest donors were also party committees, with the Kentucky Republican Party topping the list. 

While Beshear topped campaign fundraising, Cameron benefited from more outside group spending on independent expenditures. 

The attorney general benefitted from over $25 million in spending by outside groups while Beshear benefitted from about $20 million. The bulk of that paid for negative advertising with $19.4 million on ads attacking Cameron and $18.2 million on anti-Beshear ads.

The top two spenders were Defending Bluegrass Values and Kentucky Values — political action committees affiliated with the Democratic and Republican governors associations, respectively. 

Defending Bluegrass Values reported more than $4 million in contributions in campaign finance filings this year and made $13.7 million in ad buys supporting Beshear’s reelection campaign in the first week of September — more than every other PAC spending on the race combined, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. It spent nearly $16.8 million in total on the election, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

Kentucky Values reported spending more than $12.4 million, mostly on independent expenditures opposing Beshear’s reelection. 

A PAC called Bluegrass Freedom Action also ranked among the top outside spenders, pouring more than $4.9 million into the primary and general elections to boost Cameron’s campaign. Most of that money traces back to The Concord Fund, a conservative “dark money” group well known for financing efforts to reshape the federal judiciary

As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, The Concord Fund — formerly known as the Judicial Crisis Network — is not required to disclose its donors. It has steered $3.3 million to Bluegrass Freedom Action, as of Oct. 23. 

Another top spender boosting Cameron was the School Freedom Fund, an out-of-state super PAC allied with the conservative Club For Growth. The super PAC has yet to report any new donors this year, but in 2022 it was bankrolled by billionaire Jeff Yass, the founder of Susquehanna International Group, according to federal campaign finance reports. 

School Freedom Fund spent around $3 million opposing Beshear, records show. Multiple ads from the super PAC about Beshear’s decision to release some prisoners early during the COVID-19 pandemic were debunked

Club for Growth, a pro-free market conservative group active across the country, spent another $2.2 million boosting Cameron in the gubernatorial race.

Anna Massoglia and Jimmy Cloutier wrote this story for OpenSecrets.

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

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