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Expensive battle brewing in Kentucky primary to shape GOP caucus in Frankfort

 The Capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Friday April 5, 2024.
Ryan Van Velzer
/
LPM

The Capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Friday April 5, 2024.

Well-funded political action committees are preparing to spend on competitive Republican primary races for the Kentucky General Assembly, with one side supporting candidates from the “liberty” wing of the GOP and the other supporting more establishment candidates.

With less than four weeks to go until Kentucky’s primary election, political action committees and the interests that fund them are prepared to spend heavily on Republican races for the state legislature — re-opening divisions within the GOP caucus in Frankfort.

At least a half dozen races pit candidates from the “liberty” wing of the GOP against what are often considered more mainstream or “establishment” Republicans.

The liberty faction distinguishes itself from Kentucky’s GOP establishment by taking a harder line opposing government spending and regulations, to the point of challenging party leadership. These candidates include incumbents and challengers that are supported by multiple ideologically-aligned PACs, such as libertarian-leaning Make Liberty Win, Americans for Prosperity and “school choice” group Commonwealth Educational Opportunities.

The Republican candidates they are facing off against have the backing of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and PACs that are funded by major business interests, such as the horse racing industry, hospitals and realtors — as well as the Louisville teachers union.

Republicans are virtually certain to maintain their dominant supermajority of both Kentucky General Assembly chambers when they return to Frankfort for the 2025 session, but these primary races will play a part in determining what that GOP caucus looks like — and what legislative leadership they elect — as they steer state policy for the next two years.

These races are also shaping up to be a replay of sorts of the 2022 GOP primary that featured numerous challenges to Republican incumbents from candidates in the liberty wing.

While many of those challengers lost — in part due to heavy spending by PACs to counter them — the liberty candidates were able to knock off three GOP incumbents from northern Kentucky who had chaired influential House committees.

Now, the chamber and other aligned business interests funding PACs are out to even the score in the May primary, targeting several of the liberty candidates who are now incumbents, while also defending some GOP incumbents who are the latest targets for liberty challengers in the current cycle.

Another factor that could come into play involves the issue of abortion, as a key group decided to endorse the liberty challengers of established Republican incumbents, with several socially conservative PACs on the periphery.

Republican primary battle lines emerge

Republican state Reps. Steven Doan and Marianne Proctor of northern Kentucky are two of the first-term House members from the liberty wing of the party who knocked off GOP incumbents in 2022, while ideologically-aligned Rep. Candy Massaroni of Bardstown also won an upset in the primary that year for an open seat.

This year, all three of these incumbents are being challenged by candidates who have been endorsed by the chamber of commerce and have the backing of one or more well-financed PACs expected to start spending on ads soon.

Doan is being challenged by homeschooling mom Diane Brown in the GOP primary for House District 69, Proctor is being challenged by retired engineer Christopher Pavese in the primary for House District 60 and Massaroni is being challenged by pilot and local school board member Andy Stone in the primary for House District 50.

The chamber and aligned PACs are also backing Ed Massey — one of the three House GOP incumbents who was knocked off in the 2022 primary — now running again for the same District 66 seat. Massey was defeated in 2022 by current Rep. Steve Rawlings (who is now running for state Senate instead of reelection) and is now taking on Republican TJ Roberts in the primary.

Roberts is backed by ads from at least one school choice PAC and the leadership PAC of GOP Congressman Thomas Massie — widely regarded as the leader of the liberty movement within Kentucky, along with three-term Republican state Rep. Savannah Maddox of Dry Ridge.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and other PACs are also pitching in to help defend the seat of two Republican incumbents who now have a big target on their backs — state Reps. Michael Meredith of Oakland and Killian Timoney of Lexington.

Meredith — the chair of the House Banking and Insurance committee and lead sponsor of the bill passed to legalize sports betting last year, is facing dairy farmer Kelcey Rock, who has the backing of the Make Liberty Win and Commonwealth Educational Opportunities PACs. These two PACs are also backing retired businessman Thomas Jefferson in his challenge against Timoney, who is regarded as one of the most moderate members of the House GOP caucus.

The lines of division within the Republican ranks are not as clear with some of the other races.

In Senate District 7, the chamber is backing GOP farmer Ed Gallrein over Sen. Adrienne Southworth, the incumbent Republican from Lawrenceburg. However, the liberty-aligned PACs are split on who to support, with Americans for Prosperity already spending heavily to elect Aaron Reed, while Make Liberty Win is supporting Southworth’s reelection.

PACs on one side funded by teachers union, horse industry

In the 2022 GOP primary for Kentucky legislative races, PACs falling along either side of this same “liberty” vs. establishment ideological divide combined to spend roughly $700,000 to support their preferred candidates.

Full reporting on campaign spending with state and federal agencies won’t be finalized until this summer, but the most recent filings of PACs suggest each side could have plenty more than that amount in their accounts to spend on Kentucky’s GOP primaries through this May.

In the 2022 primary, the more-establishment side aligned with the GOP incumbents and the chamber spent more than double that of the liberty PACs, most of which was by Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a PAC also known as KSL, Inc.

This year, two PACs on that side of the GOP divide have already received $300,000 from a Louisville teachers union for the purpose of funding ads in the primary, as first reported by Kentucky Public Radio.

Better Schools Kentucky, the political arm of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, reported sending $100,000 to the Common Sense Kentucky PAC and $200,000 to the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC, earmarking those for ads supporting incumbents Meredith and Timoney, as well as the challengers of incumbents Doan, Proctor and Massaroni. The candidate receiving most of that support ($90,000) is Massey, the former House Judiciary committee chairman who is taking another crack at the seat he lost.

JCTA representatives say their effort is an attempt to grow support for public education within the caucus of the dominant Republican supermajority, as Meredith and Timoney voted against a bill this session to amend the constitution to allow public funds to go to private and charter schools. The liberty-aligned incumbents have forcefully criticized the PACs for trying to undermine the school choice movement within the GOP caucus.

While representatives of Commonwealth Conservative Coalition have not returned requests for comment, Tres Watson, the director of Common Sense Kentucky, says the PAC’s mission is to support "main street Republicans in favor of common sense, conservative solutions."

In 2022, Common Sense Kentucky expended $54,000 on primary ads to help Massey and former Rep. Adam Koenig, who was defeated by Doan. Watson previously said they’ll support GOP candidates “willing to work well with others” this cycle, citing Doan as an example of a Republican incumbent who voted out of step with GOP leadership on the state budget bill and a major crime bill this past session.

The $200,000 from the JCTA was not the only contribution received by the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition, as their latest federal filing showed they raised $517,000 through March. This included $200,000 from horse racing and gambling giant Churchill Downs, $50,000 from the Kentucky Hospital Association and $25,000 from northern Kentucky real estate developer Bill Butler.

There is also the presence of a new state-based PAC called Friends of Kentucky Racing that has received $175,000 from horse racing interests, with $125,000 of that coming from ECL Gaming, the owner of the Kentucky Downs track and gaming hall near the Tennessee border. Representatives of the PAC did not respond to a request for comment on their strategy this primary season.

The horse racing industry made an expensive lobbying effort in the 2023 legislative session to pass a bill banning so-called “gray machines,” the cash payout games resembling casino slots that proliferated in gas stations throughout the state. The successful bill was sponsored by Timoney, while Doan led its opposition in the House, nearly stopping the legislation in its tracks with a procedural move. The bill was also voted against by Massaroni and Proctor.

The PAC funding by the advocacy organization of Kentucky hospitals also comes after this year’s session where Proctor sponsored three bills to lower the bar on certificate of need requirements for new health care facilities. The KHA heavily lobbied against the bills (along with the chamber), which were also co-sponsored by Doan and Massaroni.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce declined an interview on its PAC’s involvement in the GOP primary, but CEO Ashli Watts sent a statement indicating they endorsed candidates based on their voting record and alignment with the business advocacy group’s key policy priorities.

“Policies like improving the tax code for growth, removing barriers to work such as lack of access to child care, investing in infrastructure, and supporting signature industries are key to growth,” Watts said. “Policy matters, and Kentucky needs leaders who will fight for these same principles.”

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership has not yet reported any independent expenditures to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance in this primary, though it has nearly $150,000 in state and federal accounts as of this month. KSL waited until late in the 2022 primary to spend nearly $190,000 on ads attempting to defend GOP incumbents from liberty challengers, after a late infusion of funds from a national GOP group.

The Kentucky Chamber’s PAC and advocacy committee have also not reported any independent expenditures yet, but have endorsed the challengers of GOP liberty incumbents Doan, Proctor and Massaroni, as well as Darrell Billings, challenging liberty-adjacent GOP Rep. Bill Wesley of Ravenna. The chamber PAC spent $86,000 in the 2022 primary to defend GOP incumbents like Massey from liberty challengers.

The National Association of Realtors PAC also spent $15,000 in 2022 to support GOP incumbents in primary races, and has already doubled that amount so far in 2024, including $7,722 to support Meredith’s reelection.

‘Liberty’ and ‘school choice’ PACs target GOP ‘establishment’

The largest spender in the 2022 GOP primaries on the liberty side of the divide was Make Liberty Win, which spent roughly $137,000 on campaign mailers, canvassing and phone banking. Their involvement was partly credited for the surprise primary upsets by Rawlings and Proctor that election.

Though Make Liberty Win has not yet reported any direct spending on Kentucky races this year, their federal filing last week shows they have already spent $2.3 million on GOP primaries in Ohio, North Carolina and Texas this year — and have $1.7 million cash on hand to start an ad campaign in the bluegrass. Their ads in Ohio have been aggressive, attacking GOP incumbents as a “RINO (Republican in name only)” and “Democrat Asset!”

Make Liberty Win Executive Director Barrett Young wrote in an email that the PAC is already in Kentucky knocking on doors and will get involved in nine GOP primary races, noting they will defend Doan, Massaroni and Proctor, while “attacking” Meredith and Timoney.

In a statement on their involvement in these races, Young made a reference to the teachers union funding of rival PACs by calling them “groomer” unions, a derogatory term implying they are involved in the sexual abuse or exploitation of children.

“The Establishment and their groomer buddies may outspend us, but we have one resource they don’t: people actually willing to talk to voters, not just hide behind a desk at a consulting firm,” Young wrote.

Make Liberty Win is largely funded by Young Americans for Liberty, a dark money nonprofit that spun off from the presidential campaign of Ron Paul.

The Kentucky chapter of Americans for Prosperity — the deep-pocketed nationwide conservative advocacy group — is getting involved in three primary races, with its PAC already reporting $118,567 of independent expenditures on canvassing, mailers and digital ads.

One of those candidates receiving support is Proctor, with Heather LeMire, the state director of AFP-Kentucky, calling her “a champion on certificate of need repeal, which is a very important policy issue for us to move forward in the state.”

Americans for Prosperity is also supporting Aaron Reed in the race against incumbent Sen. Southworth, with LeMire calling him “the most constitutionally sound candidate” in the race. While Southworth shares much of the ideology of the liberty wing of the party and is known for publicly challenging GOP leadership in the Senate, LeMire said the latter was partly why they chose Reed over her.

“Leadership has had numerous issues with [Southworth], so I don't feel like she could probably move certain policy initiatives forward in the state that we would like to move,” LeMire said.

Commonwealth Educational Opportunities PAC, the school choice group that spent $65,000 in the 2022 GOP primaries, largely in an effort to defeat Massey, is also getting involved in this year’s races.

CEO PAC director Thomas Davis says they will make independent expenditures to defeat Massey again, in addition to other races he declined to name. However, he did add that any GOP member who voted against the constitutional amendment to allow public funding of private and charter schools should be “on notice.”

“I think this whole election cycle is going to be a test on whether or not money can buy elections,” Davis said. “I mean, there's no way that we're going to be able to keep pace with the teachers union being able to cut a $90,000 check to help Ed Massey.”

Davis added that the outcome of these contentious GOP primary races this cycle will show if Republicans “who stand on the left side of education policy” can still win.

Though Americans for Prosperity is not getting involved in the Meredith race, LeMire also said the outcome of that primary contest will show what direction the GOP is moving in Kentucky.

“I think there's definitely a shift in the state happening with Republicans, and I think that the Meredith race will be the interesting one to watch,” LeMire said. “I think if he loses his race, that will really show that Kentucky's moving to support a different type of Republican candidate.”

Abortion issue could also factor in GOP primary fights

Though it is still unclear if it will drive PAC spending in the GOP primary this spring, a similar divide within the Republican caucus has also emerged on social issues — particularly abortion.

The influential Kentucky Right to Life organization released its GOP primary endorsements this week. The group is endorsing the challengers of several Republican incumbents, despite their proven voting records supporting anti-abortion bills.

The anti-abortion group is endorsing Rock, the dairy farmer, and Jefferson over House incumbents Meredith and Timoney, in addition to supporting former Rep. Lynn Bechler in his challenge against incumbent GOP Sen. Jason Howell of Murray.

The Right to Life voter guide notes that while Meredith, Timoney and Howell all had “a 100% ProLife voting record,” they were not endorsed at least in part due to declining to fill out the organization’s candidate questionnaire this year. The guide added that Timoney was also one of three Republicans co-sponsors of a bill this session to add exceptions for rape and incest to Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban.

The group also endorsed Roberts over Massey, despite the latter’s pristine anti-abortion voting record when he was in the House. The Right To Life guide added that this decision was due to Massey’s responses to the questionnaire this year being inconsistent with his responses to another candidate survey and his support for rape and incest exceptions.

The Kentucky Right to Life Voter guide also has a section praising the closure of abortion clinics in the state after Roe v. Wade was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, but adds that “life-affirming bills have been held up, languished, and ultimately died in committees” in the last two legislative sessions in Frankfort. It added that “passing ProLife legislation requires ProLife leadership.”

The organization supported two unsuccessful House bills this session to require health care providers to refer patients with nonviable pregnancies to perinatal palliative care programs and require schools to show a video on fetal developmentthat some doctors have said is medically inaccurate and biased. Both bills cleared a committee but were not called for a vote on the House floor, while the Senate resisted efforts to attach their language to other non-controversial bills.

Right to Life Executive Director Addia Wucchner told Kentucky Public Radio it is the group’s longstanding policy to not endorse candidates who do not fill out their questionnaires and they are not questioning the commitment of GOP legislative leadership to their cause.

Kentucky Right to Life is split on the Senate District 7 GOP primary, choosing to endorse both Southworth and Reed.

There are also several new PACs that may get involved in GOP primary races by playing up social conservative issues, though none have tipped their hand on a specific strategy yet.

Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action is a federal PAC that was formed last month by Corey Koellner, who was the executive director of Right to Life of Louisville until last year. Koellner declined to say which races the PAC would get involved in, but said they were formed to “elect and retain principled conservative candidates” who reflect “Kentucky’s conservative values.”

Another PAC called the Kentucky Conservative Alliance was registered with the state last week to be involved in primary races, but has not reported raising or spending any funds yet.

Kentucky Conservative Alliance is chaired by Dustin McIntyre, who also chairs Kentucky Prosperity PAC, which is also registered with the state to be involved in the primary. McIntyre has not responded to inquiries about either PAC, but has a long history of involvement with PACs that are funded by conservative dark money networks and get involved in competitive GOP primaries around the country.

Kentucky Prosperity PAC was formed in 2022 just before the general election, receiving $225,000 from a dark money group and spending those funds to support two conservative candidates for the Kentucky Supreme Court, both of whom lost.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated support for Aaron Reed and the committee chaired by Ed Massey. This story has also been updated to reflect that Corey Koellner left Right to Life of Louisville last year.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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