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Spending in Kentucky governor race reached $70 million, shattering record

The halls in Kentucky's capitol building in Frankfort
Alix Mattingly
The hall in Kentucky's capitol building in Frankfort.

Candidates and PACs spent $70 million in Kentucky’s race for governor during the general election this year, more than doubling the previous spending record for the office.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was reelected to a second term last month, defeating Republican Daniel Cameron by 5 percentage points.

The first post-election campaign finance reports submitted by candidates and political groups this week showed Beshear further extending his huge spending lead over Cameron, though Republican PACs supporting the challenger nearly evened the playing field.

Beshear’s campaign spent nearly $19 million from the May primary to Election Day in November, more than four times the $4.3 million spent by Cameron.

This spending advantage let Beshear air TV ads nearly continuously over those six months while Cameron was not able to go onto the air until August.

However, nearly a dozen PACs supporting Cameron came to his aid collectively spending more than $26 million over the course of the general election. This spending mostly came in the form of TV ads critical of Beshear, but also messaging via mail, digital ads and text messages.

Democratic PACs also came to the aid of Beshear with more than $20 million of spending, slightly more than than the governor’s campaign.

Altogether, the pro-Beshear side had an overall spending advantage with roughly $40 million of expenditures outpacing the $30 million of expenditures by the pro-Cameron side.

This $70 million of spending on the governor’s race obliterated the previous record for the office in a Kentucky general election set in 2019, when the campaigns of Beshear, former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and the PACs supporting each candidate combined to spend roughly $28 million.

National governors associations behind nearly half of spending

Nearly half of all spending in the general election came from PACs led by the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association — two tax-exempt organizations that can accept contributions of unlimited amounts from people, companies and unions to support their parties’ candidates.

The DGA-controlled Defending Bluegrass Values PAC spent more than $19 million in the general election. The majority of that was spent on TV ads critical of Cameron. The DGA provided around $16 million of the PAC’s funding, with national labor unions kicking in another $3 million.

Eight other smaller Democratic PACs supporting Beshear combined to spend nearly $1.3 million in support of Beshear, largely on digital ads, radio ads and canvassing efforts.

The Kentucky Democratic Party also kicked in $3.7 million directly to Beshear’s campaign, which coincided with a large influx of money to the party from the Democratic National Committee.

The DNC received $1.6 million from the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, which was mostly bankrolled in the final months of the campaign by Kentuckians — including $550,000 from Randall Weddle, the Republican mayor of London whose past excess contributions to Beshear raised controversy.

On the Republican side, the RGA funded $13 million of spending to support Cameron, almost entirely through the Kentucky Values PAC, which spread advertisements through TV, digital, mail and texts.

Five other Republican PACs pitched in to help Cameron with at least $2 million of spending each: Bluegrass Freedom Action ($2.7 million), Protect Freedom PAC ($2.4 million), School Freedom Fund ($3 million), Club for Growth Action ($2.4 million) and American Principles Project Fund ($2.3 million).

Three of these PACs — Protect Freedom Act, School Freedom Fund and Club for Growth Action — were largely bankrolled by Pennsylvania investment fund billionaire Jeff Yass.

American Principles Project PAC was largely funded by Restoration PAC – a federal PAC that has been almost entirely funded by Wisconsin shipping supplies billionaire Richard Uihlein – while Bluegrass Freedom Action received most of its funding from various dark money GOP nonprofits that are able to shield its donors.

Several other Republican PACs also spent nearly $400,000 in support of Cameron including ads through mail and texts.

The DGA and RGA do not have to report to the IRS the identity of any of their contributors in the second half of 2023 until the end of this coming January.

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Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.