LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) — Three top Republicans hoping to become Kentucky’s next governor battled on the debate stage Tuesday night as part of a multimarket live telecast. “The Kentucky Republican Gubernatorial Debate” featured candidates Daniel Cameron, Ryan Quarles, and Eric Deters. Kelly Craft qualified for the debate but declined to attend.
Previous GOP debates have been filled with backbiting and conflict. Quarles vowed early in his campaign to steer clear of personal attacks against fellow GOP candidates, instead focusing on a personal and biographical approach to win the election.
The debate was moderated by Marvin Bartlett of FOX 56 News in Lexington, Gilbert Corsey of WDRB News in Louisville, and Ashley Kirklen of WLWT News in Cincinnati, who posed questions focused on issues Kentucky voters care about most.
Reaction to Trump verdict
On Tuesday, a jury found former President Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing an advice columnist in 1996. The jury is awarding E. Jean Carroll $5 million after the judgment, amidst the former president’s campaign to regain the White House.
Trump publicly responded to the verdict on social media, saying he does not know Carroll and calling it “a disgrace” and “a witch hunt.”
In civil trials, the burden of proof is lower than in criminal trials. This case has highlighted Trump’s behavior towards women, a recurring issue since his election, as over a dozen individuals have accused him of sexual assault.
Cameron said he is still proud to have Trump’s endorsement.
“He has endorsed my campaign for governor. He is a fighter, and I am a fighter, and I’m going to continue to fight for the working women and men of this Commonwealth,” Cameron said.
Quarles said he was not basing his campaign on Trump but on Kentuckians and claimed to be the grassroots candidate in the race.
“I’m not basing my campaign for governor off the endorsement of President Trump. I’m basing my campaign for governor off the endorsement of over 230 elected Republican officials, including 1/4 of our judge-executives, 20-plus members of our legislature, and 100s of magistrates,” Quarles said.
Deters strongly disagreed with the verdict, saying the claims made by Carroll are lies.
“I’m the only one who has defended Donald Trump, and as you are witnessing tonight, the only one who will continue to defend Donald Trump. He saved this country and I look forward to him being president in 2024,” Deters said.
Economy, state income tax
The primary issue facing Kentuckians is the economy. Kentucky is gradually working towards abolishing the state income tax. All three candidates have supported ending the income tax.
“I certainly do support the efforts that have been undertaken by the general assembly to get to 0% on the income tax rate,” Cameron said. “I think as we see that, we will continue to grow the pie. We will continue to grow revenues here in Kentucky.”
In a follow-up question about adding taxes to other services, Cameron said taxes are hindering Kentucky’s ability to recruit workers.
“The most important thing that we need to focus on is getting our personal income tax rate down to zero,” Cameron said.
Quarles agreed with eliminating the state income tax and advocated for reducing it quickly, citing Kentucky’s current surplus.
“Don’t undervalue what job growth and economic growth can do toward a tax base, because we have got to get people back to work,” Quarles said.
Deters said he believes the income tax should be eliminated immediately.
“I’m a sales tax guy. I look at what Texas, Tennessee, and Florida does—and I would mimic that,” he said.
The rate of sales tax in Tennessee is 7%. When questioned about a suitable sales tax rate, Deters admitted he hadn’t yet determined what would be appropriate for Kentucky.
“That sales tax would have to be a number that works,” he said.
Kentucky schools have been understaffed in every area, with more than 2,000 positions open, according to the Kentucky Department Placement Service. All candidates have supported increasing teacher pay.
Quarles, who identified himself as the son of a public school teacher, said teaching should be a job people are excited to go to every day.
“Give respect back to the job, and that includes discipline reform in the classroom. A lot of teachers feel like they can’t control the learning environment,” Quarles said. “A teacher, and the administration, and the principal have the ability to deal with problematic, persistent children.”
Deters said Kentucky needs classroom discipline and to stop over-testing its students.
“We need to make teaching great again … We are not going to be a great state without great education,” he said.
Cameron said bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork need to be removed from the Kentucky education system. When asked about critical race theory (CRT) being taught in schools, Cameron said Black history should be taught.
“Recognizing Black history is important, but we don’t need to make our students talk about the Black Lives Matter protest in a… positive perspective or positive light,” Cameron said.
Crime, safety, justice
Candidates were asked what the state’s role is in public safety and police reform in Louisville.
Deters said it should play a bigger role in public safety and police reform.
“I believe that Daniel Cameron, as the Kentucky Attorney General, should have been much more aggressive,” he said.
He said he stands by the choice the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council made, saying they made the right decision in allowing Cosgrove to keep his certification.
Quarles said he wants to use already available resources in the Kentucky State Police Department to help with rising crime in Kentucky, tackle the homelessness problem in Jefferson County, and improve education choice in the county.
The Department of Justice has been investigating the Breonna Taylor investigation, including the warrant and actions that led up to the raid. Four officers were charged federally with conspiracy, obstruction, and other crimes; one has already pleaded guilty.
Cameron was asked what he says to critics who claim he should have looked at the complete picture.
“If you look at the two cases, the federal case and our case, there is one big thing that is true about both cases, which is, neither found any charges against Jonathan Mattingly or Myles Cosgrove,” he said. “Again, the federal government was looking at the obtaining of the warrant, and we were looking at what happened that night in her home.”
Quarles was asked why he decided to skip an event in January where Mattingly was a guest. At the time, he said he decided not to go because of another speaker but did not identify them.
Quarles said he decided not to attend because other candidates had been given less controversial places to speak.
Deters was asked about his pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of harassing and menacing after an event involving his teenage nephew.
“The incident was all about this nephew of mine swerving and acting like he was going to hit my wife. And I didn’t chase him; I followed him,” he recounted. Deters said the case was a vendetta and political prosecution. He described the menacing charge as simply scaring someone.
“It’s a much [sic] ado about nothing,” he said.
All three candidates were asked how they would compare to Matt Bavin, who lost his political race during a time when GOP candidates were sweeping the nation.
Cameron noted his values, saying, “My status is as a Christ follower, a husband to Makenze, and a father to Theodore, and that is the way we have tried to approach this race.”
Quarles also highlighted the importance of relationships outside the family.
“Every session, instead of suing the General Assembly, like what Andy Beshear does, or vetoing over 90 pieces of legislation, I want to work with our majorities and members of both parties to do what’s best for Kentucky.”
Deters was the only candidate to mention Bavin, calling him a jerk.
“He liked making everybody mad. I have this passionate fighter attitude, got a heart of gold. Everybody who works with me, everybody who follows me … people who get to know me get to know what I’m all about,” he said. “I’m going to treat people with respect; Bevin did not.”
Election integrity, threats to democracy
Election integrity is an issue many Kentuckians are concerned with. Candidates were asked if they would accept the results of the election.
Quarles and Cameron said they would accept the outcome of the election, while Deters challenged the moderator.
“You can’t ask a candidate that question when you don’t know what shenanigans may take place,” he said. He pushed disproven ideas that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump using mail-in ballots,” Deters said.
Candidates were also asked how they would ensure Kentucky’s elections were safe.
Quarles said he wants to focus on voter integrity by removing dead people from voter registries, checking voting machines, and getting input from all 120 county clerks.
Deters said he can keep Kentucky elections safe by putting the right people in the room and making sure they do their jobs.
Cameron said he would work with the next Kentucky attorney general to conduct audits and work with the legislature to expand those audits.
Candidates were asked for a response after 319 companies signed a statement opposing anti-LGBTQ legislation.
A portion of that statement published by the Human Rights Campaign said, “As we make complex decisions about where to invest and grow, these issues can influence our decisions. America’s business community has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws have a negative effect on our employees, our customers, our competitiveness, and state and national economies.”
Candidates were asked if political decisions made in Kentucky could negatively impact business recruiting and retention.
All three candidates agreed that tax code changes could draw in more companies, even if anti-LGBTQ legislation damages relationships between the state and some companies.
“I’m against all the woke corporate stuff,” Deters said. He continued, “Woke corporate America is the problem in this country, with the woke media, with the Democratic Party, with all of them. I call them the American communist 10.”
Deters clarified that if a business is “woke,” he doesn’t want them in Kentucky if he is governor.
Cameron agreed with Deters, saying he would stand firm for Kentucky values despite the desires of some companies.
Quarles also said tax code changes are what will draw companies to Kentucky.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade triggered a nearly full abortion ban in Kentucky, with the only exception being when the life of the mother is in jeopardy, but no exception in cases of rape and incest.
Candidates were asked if they believed Kentucky’s ban should apply to victims of sexual assault.
Cameron did not give a clear answer. When asked to clarify, he said he supports the Human Life Protection Act, which only gives an exception to a mother whose life is in danger.
“Democrats are the extreme party. Andy Beshear is the extreme. We are a party that wants to make sure there is a culture of life in the Commonwealth,” Cameron said.
Quarles said he values all life, and that means supporting organizations that promote life and take care of people.
“We need to be a state that takes care of those families that are going through tough times,” Quarles said. “That means we need to help support pregnancy crisis centers as well as fix the broken adoption and foster care system in Kentucky.”
Quarles clarified that support for those adoption and foster care systems would require state and church partnerships along with the hiring of more social workers.
Deters was the only candidate to answer the questions directly.
“My position is: life of the mother exception [and for] rape and incest up to 15 weeks,” he said. Deters said that he would not advocate for these exceptions and that he is satisfied with the current law as it stands.
In the wake of the Old National Bank shooting, the family of the shooter and Louisville’s mayor have renewed calls to end a state law that requires guns confiscated by law enforcement to be sold at auction.
In 2022, Kentucky State Police reported just under 4,500 weapons were confiscated and sold at auction. About $220,000 of the sale went to KSP, a fraction of the department’s overall budget.
When asked what they would say to families victimized by gun violence who don’t want to see those weapons back on the street, Deters and Cameron said they supported their destruction. Although Cameron said he doesn’t think the state needs to get rid of the entire program, he agreed to follow the wishes of family members. Quarles noted the program’s profits could be used for body armor and body cams and that the program itself was established by Democrats years ago.
In the wake of the deadly shooting at Marshall County High School in 2018, Kentucky passed a law requiring armed resource officers in every school.
According to John Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, fewer than half of Kentucky schools had SROs as of April 6.
Cameron said his plan to get schools in compliance with the law includes working with the General Assembly to make funding available for those schools that have yet to hire one. While some school districts have the money, Cameron said he’d focus on visiting schools to promote the profession and recruit for it.
While Quarles said he was glad the law passed, he thinks schools also need to “strengthen soft points,” like metal detectors. Quarles also mentioned supporting a state revenue stream in the budget to take care of the funding. He also supported arming teachers in schools, if qualified and trained, as schools fail to fulfill the SRO requirement.
“This is another example of lack of common sense in Kentucky,” Deters declared when asked about the SRO staffing requirement. “Allow school teachers to be armed. Allow veterans, retired police officers, and those that are properly trained, to volunteer.”
Kentucky primary election 2023
The Kentucky primary election will take place on Tuesday, May 16, with in-person early voting running from Thursday, May 11, to Saturday, May 13.
To find out more regarding the upcoming election, including polling locations and voter identification requirements, click here.
The winner of the Republican seat for governor will go on to face the winner of the Democratic primary—Andy Beshear, Geoff Young, and Peppy Martin—in the general election on Nov. 7, 2023.