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10 races, 10 PACs, 2 party factions and millions spent: A look at Ky.’s GOP statehouse primaries

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

Two factions of the Republican Party in Kentucky are vying for power within the supermajority caucus in Frankfort, with political action committees on opposing sides spending more than $1.5 million on 10 key races.

With just a week until Kentucky’s primary election, spending has proliferated in 10 key races where rival ideological factions of the Republican Party are vying for control of the supermajority caucus in Frankfort — with deep-pocketed political action committees leading the way.

A clear division has emerged in the races between candidates who are at least loosely aligned with the upstart “liberty” wing of the GOP — known for taking a harder line against government spending and intervention, to the point of challenging party leadership — and those who are considered more ideologically mainstream and supported by the establishment of the party and business community.

PACs on each side of this divide have jumped into the fray to spend big on ads supporting or attacking GOP candidates, which has so far exceeded $1.7 million. The PACs backing the “establishment” candidates — largely funded by the horse racing industry, Kentucky hospitals and the Jefferson County teachers union — have already spent more than $1.2 million, double that of the liberty-aligned PACs.

This is very similar to the division at play in the 2022 Republican primary for state legislative races, where liberty candidates ran for office and challenged establishment GOP incumbents. Most of them lost, but three liberty challengers were able to knock off incumbent committee chairmen in their stronghold of northern Kentucky, while another won an open seat in Nelson County — despite being greatly outspent by opposing PACs.

This year, the establishment PACs are not just spending big to defend three Republican incumbents facing a serious challenger, but gunning to defeat three of the liberty candidates who won in the 2022 primary and two liberty-aligned incumbents running for a third term.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition is the PAC doing the large majority of this spending, dropping nearly $1 million on TV ads in nine Republican House primary races last week. The ads touting the conservative bonafides of establishment candidates heavily focus on immigration and their support for former President Donald Trump.

Despite being greatly outspent, the PACs supporting the liberty-aligned candidates have also more than doubled their spending compared to the 2022 primary, directing more than $500,000 on ads and canvassing as of this week. The biggest spender on this side is Make Liberty Win, a libertarian-leaning federal super PAC that is able to mostly shield the identity of its donors, which has spent more than $200,000 in these races.

These PAC ads — particularly those attacking their establishment opponents — highlight that the division in the party has more to do with just small government ideology, as they’ve focused on conservative social issues, such as opposition to transgender rights and support for “school choice” measures to allow public funds to go to private schools.

Here’s a look at 10 key Republican primary races for the Kentucky General Assembly, along with the PAC spending that is trying to influence these races and the shape of the dominant GOP caucus in Frankfort for the next two years.

House D-45: Rep. Killian Timoney vs. Thomas Jefferson

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition is by far the biggest-spending PAC in Kentucky’s GOP primary, and the candidate they are spending the most to elect is Rep. Killian Timoney, a two-term incumbent from Lexington who is regarded as one of the most moderate Republicans in the legislature.

The PAC reported spending $253,329 on advertisements for Timoney, putting up TV ads in the Lexington market that tout him as “a proven conservative” who voted for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban non-citizens from voting. The PAC is significantly funded by Kentucky’s horse racing industry, which heavily lobbied for a bill sponsored by Timoney last year to ban certain gambling machines from gas stations and stores — though the identity of who contributed roughly half of the PAC’s funds won’t be known until its next federal campaign finance report this summer.

Timoney is facing a challenge from Thomas Jefferson, a retiree who is taking on the incumbent from his ideological right with the help of liberty-aligned PACs that have combined to spend $37,000 on ads — nearly all of which attack Timoney.

In addition to Make Liberty Win, Timoney has been hit with attack mailers and digital ads from pro-school choice PAC Commonwealth Educational Opportunities (CEO PAC) and Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action, a new federal super PAC that highlights social conservative issues.

While CEO PAC has hit Timoney for his votes against “school choice” bills, ads from Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action have criticized him as a “fake conservative” because he voted against bills to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors and ban transgender girls from girls sports.

The opposing PACs have also highlighted Timoney’s support from the PAC of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, which contributed $200,000 to Commonwealth Conservative Coalition and $100,000 to Common Sense Kentucky, another mainstream GOP PAC that plans to spend at least $25,000 for Timoney.

However, the amount being spent to hit Timoney is far less than the spending on his behalf.

Jefferson’s campaign and the PAC ads hitting his opponent have spent roughly $42,000, whereas PACs supporting Timoney are now at $280,000. When factoring in spending from Timoney’s own campaign, the pro-Jefferson side is likely being outspent 10-to-1.

While Timoney’s campaign has failed to file any of its required finance reports this year, it’s clearly spending a lot, including mailers and a new TV ad attacking Jefferson.

Timoney’s TV ad claims that Jefferson’s financial disclosure report shows he “makes his money from a violent culture” and supports Black Lives Matter protesters and drag shows for children. His mailers are more direct, basing these claims on the “woke” Jefferson owning stock in companies like Disney, Amazon and Proctor & Gamble — which the ads assert are “pro-transgender” and support diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

Jefferson responded to the ads by saying “everything he’s stated about me is false,” adding that nearly everyone buys some sort of product from companies like Disney and Amazon and that doesn't make them responsible for all their policies. Timoney said the ads flip the criticisms that Jefferson has levied at him, intending to “shed light on a candidate that wasn’t being forthright about their positions.”

Nearly $323,000 of spending has been reported in the race as of this week, which is more than any other Kentucky House primary race in 2022 or this year. Once Timoney’s campaign reports its spending, this figure may exceed $400,000, which would also exceed the highest-spending Senate primary race in either year.

House D-60: Rep. Marianne Proctor vs. Christopher Pavese

Rep. Marianne Proctor of Boone County is another first-term liberty incumbent, winning a stunning upset over former Rep. Sal Santoro in the 2022 GOP primary despite being heavily outspent.

Proctor was the lead sponsor of several bills this year to loosen certificate of need requirements for the opening of new health care facilities, which was successfully lobbied against by the Kentucky Hospital Association — one of the big contributors to the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition PAC.

This PAC has spent $65,092 on TV ads for her opponent Christopher Pavese, a retired electric utilities engineer. Like most of the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition’s other TV ads supporting more establishment GOP candidates, the ad heavily plays up scenes of immigration at the Mexican border and support for Trump, saying Pavese will stand with Trump and law enforcement “against the invasion of our country.”

Also spending $2,500 on digital ads touting Pavese as a candidate to “improve rural health care” is Kentuckians for Patient Access Committee, a newly-created PAC that is spending $19,000 on ads backing establishment GOP primary candidates. The only contributor to Kentuckians for Patient Access is Parthenon Strategies, a Nashville-based political consulting firm that also runs the PAC and declined to comment on it.

However, liberty-aligned PACs have also come to Proctor’s aid, spending $51,584 on ads for her — more than any other House GOP liberty candidate as of this week.

Chief among these backers of Proctor is Americans for Prosperity, the nationwide conservative advocacy group that endorsed her because of her push for certificate of need reform and spent $38,954 on mailers, canvassing and digital ads supporting her.

Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action also hit Pavese with ads calling him a “fake conservative” due to switching his party registration to Republican just in the past year.

Despite her outside assistance, Pavese’s campaign and supportive PACs have spent more that $100,000 as of this week, surpassing the $71,049 spent by Proctor’s campaign and aligned PACs.

House D-50: Rep. Candy Massaroni vs. Andy Stone

The second-highest spending House GOP primary race this year is in District 50, where first-term incumbent Rep. Candy Massaroni is facing Bardstown school board member Andy Stone.

Massaroni won an upset victory in a three-candidate GOP primary in 2022 despite being greatly outspent, and has consistently voted with the small liberty caucus in her first term, informally led by Rep. Savannah Maddox of Dry Ridge.

Now in her first chance at reelection, Massaroni is being outspent by an even larger margin, as Commonwealth Conservative Coalition has purchased $158,072 of TV ads touting Stone as a “rock-ribbed conservative” who will “stand with President Trump and law enforcement” and “protect Kentucky families from the Biden border crisis.”

Stone’s campaign has also spent $40,000 as of last week, as he is one of the half dozen candidates challenging liberty incumbents to receive PAC contributions from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Hospital Association.

Massaroni’s campaign only reported spending $18,772, but is getting support from liberty PACs. Make Liberty Win paid for $35,909 of mailers and canvassing for Massaroni, which was more than it spent on any other House candidate this cycle. CEO PAC and Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action also paid for anti-Stone ads highlighting his support from a PAC partly funded by the Louisville teachers union.

Despite such PAC support, the pro-Massaroni side has only reported spending $66,689 — less than a third of what was spent by Stone and aligned PACs.

House D-66: Ed Massey vs. TJ Roberts

The one open seat that does not have an incumbent seeking reelection among our 10 key GOP primary races, the District 66 race features the comeback attempt of former Rep. Ed Massey, the northern Kentucky attorney who lost in the 2022 primary to current liberty-aligned Rep. Steve Rawlings.

Rawlings is running for Senate this year, with Massey now facing TJ Roberts, an attorney who is closely associated with leaders of the liberty wing of the Kentucky GOP, such as Maddox and Congressman Thomas Massie.

Massey has been aided by $62,000 of ads from the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition, with at least $40,000 of ads scheduled to come from Common Sense Kentucky. Both sets of ads are largely funded by Better Schools Kentucky, the political arm of the Jefferson County teachers union.

The Commonwealth Conservative Coalition ad touts Massey as “a conservative fighter” who will stand with Trump on immigration, but then veers into an attack on Roberts, highlighting his past writings on a libertarian website in 2017 that were critical of Trump.

Massey’s own campaign has also spent heavily on mailers that are critical of Roberts’ past writings and social media posts that spoke ill of Trump and a border wall, calling him a “radical” and “joker with a documented history of hating America.” His campaign reported spending more than $80,000 as of last week.

CEO PAC has spent $9,587 on mailers and digital ads for Roberts, more than any other candidate, with most of those being negative against Massey. One mailer hit Massey over the Louisville teachers union backing him with $90,000 of ads, while another with an accompanying digital ad hit him for being reimbursed by the state for a legislative conference he attended in Hawaii shortly before he left office in 2022.

The political leadership PAC of Congressman Massie has also spent $7,560 on mailers touting his endorsement of Roberts, more than any other candidate.

Despite these PACs coming to the aid of Roberts, Massey’s campaign and aligned PACs have spent $182,481 to return him to Frankfort, which is nearly three times the spending of the pro-Roberts side.

In addition to being one of the most expensive primary races this cycle — very likely to exceed the highest-spending House primary race from 2022 — it’s also been one of the most negative. Roberts and his supporters on social media have hounded Massey about his 2008 contribution to Hillary Clinton, while Massey has brought up a Southern Poverty Law Center report claiming Roberts made antisemitic comments and claimed in a debate that Roberts had an account on a gay hookup app, both of which he denies.

House D-19: Rep. Michael Meredith vs. Kelcey Rock

GOP Rep. Michael Meredith is seeking an eighth term in his House District that includes Bowling Green, receiving establishment support as he takes on farmer Kelcey Rock in a race that has played up social conservative bonafides and personal attacks.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition has spent $118,644 on TV ads for Meredith, again stating that he will stand with Trump against the immigration “invasion.” The ad also praises Meredith for sponsoring a resolution this year to support Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts at the Mexican border. Much like Timoney, Meredith is a favorite of the horse racing industry backing the PAC, as he sponsored the industry-supported bill last year to legalize sports betting.

In addition to nearly $8,000 of mailers and digital ads from the National Association of Realtors PAC, Meredith is also getting support from the leadership of his own party. His campaign reported receiving $8,500 of in-kind contributions last week from the Kentucky House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee, with the group also reporting at least $21,000 of spending on TV ads on Bowling Green stations.

Opposing Meredith with nearly $15,000 of hard-hitting mailers and digital ads is Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action, which is spending more to help Rock than any other primary candidate.

The PAC’s ads — as well as Rock’s own campaign — bring up Meredith’s involvement in a sexual harassment scandal in 2017, which led to his removal from a committee chairmanship. One ad states that the married Meredith was “preying on a young female staffer” and shows the texts, saying he can’t be trusted to “uphold family values.”

Meredith’s campaign has swung back at Kelcey with more personal skeletons, sending out a mailer claiming Rock owes $832 in child support. The House GOP caucus committee also has a mailer with Rock’s mugshot from a 2008 DUI arrest and claims his ex-wife filed a restraining order against him “for abuse and domestic violence.”

Much like other establishment candidates, Meredith has a huge money advantage in the race, as his campaign and aligned political committees have spent nearly $250,000 for his reelection effort, which is more than four times that of the pro-Rock side.

Senate D-7: Sen. Adrienne Southworth vs. Aaron Reed and Ed Gallrein

Unlike the other House GOP primary races we’re highlighting, the Republican primary for Senate District 7 features two different candidates receiving support from different liberty PACs, while party leadership is backing a more establishment candidate.

The central Kentucky district that stretches to the eastern tip of Jefferson County is represented by first-term Sen. Adrienne Southworth, a Republican who often challenges GOP leadership in the chamber on spending, procedural issues and election integrity.

While at least loosely aligned with the liberty wing of the party, she is also facing liberty candidate Aaron Reed, a former Navy SEAL and firearms dealer.

These candidates have split the support of aligned PACs, as Make Liberty Win has spent more than $55,000 on mailers and canvassing for Southworth, while Americans for Prosperity has spent $75,967 on mailers, canvassing and digital ads for Reed. Both amounts are the highest the two PACs have spent on any primary candidates in Kentucky this election.

The third candidate in the race is Ed Gallrein, a farmer who is also a former Navy SEAL.

Despite Southworth being an incumbent, Gallrein is receiving support from GOP Senate leadership. The Kentucky Senate Republican Caucus Campaign Committee reported spending nearly $20,000 in support of Gallrein, including mailers that describe his background and conservative policy position. Gallrein also received a $2,000 contribution from GOP Senate President Robert Stivers, who also gave that amount to Meredith.

There is also a radio ad supporting Gallrein from Friends of Kentucky Racing, a PAC that received $175,000 from the horse racing industry. The ad touts Gallrein’s support for gun rights and law enforcement, then veers into criticism of Southworth, saying she has become “part of the swamp” and is “failing to stand up to woke liberal policies.”

While Friends of Kentucky Racing reported spending $40,000 on radio ads last week, it has not properly filed independent expenditure reports with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance to indicate how much it is spending on individual races. Its representatives have not responded to repeated inquiries about the PAC.

Gallrein’s campaign reported spending nearly $100,000 as of last week, with maximum contributions from the PACs of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Hospital Association. When adding the PAC ads supporting Gallrein, he has a slight spending advantage over the pro-Reed and pro-Southworth factions.

House D-64: Rep. Kim Moser vs. Karen Campbell

Four-term incumbent Rep. Kim Moser of northern Kentucky is facing a challenge from real estate agent Karen Campbell and ads hitting her for comments she made on the House floor when voting against the bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors in 2023.

Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action has spent nearly $12,000 on mailers and digital ads criticizing Moser for calling “Kentuckians like you ‘complete Neanderthals’ for wanting to protect children.” Moser was one of the few Republicans to vote against the bill, remarking: "I'd like to say to the rest of the world who's watching Kentucky: We are not complete Neanderthals."

While her campaign only reported spending $5,000 as of last week, Campbell released a digital ad that hits Moser on the same subject, as well as her opposition to Proctor’s certificate of need legislation.

Moser, the chair of the House Health Services committee, is benefitting from $2,500 of digital ads from Kentuckians for Patient Access and contributions from the Kentucky Chamber and 18 PACs related to the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

Also coming to Moser’s aid is a new ad out this week from the House GOP caucus committee, stating that “unhinged dark money groups” are lying about her record. The ad calls Campbell a “dark money puppet” and claims she has court judgments against her for unpaid bills.

Commonwealth Conservatives Coalition also purchased $48,000 of digital ads for Moser, with another PAC called Kentuckians For All of Us spending more than $30,000 on mailers and digital ads for her.

Kentuckians For All of Us is entirely funded by Jan Van Meter, the director of the Trans Safe Action Fund, a Kentucky-based advocacy group that lobbies against legislation that is harmful to transgender people.

House D-47: Rep. Felicia Rabourn vs. Mark Gilkison

GOP Rep. Felicia Rabourn of Pendleton has served two terms and developed a reputation as one of the liberty faction of the GOP caucus who will openly challenge her party’s leadership. Now, she’s facing a GOP primary challenger that is backed by establishment PACs.

The Commonwealth Conservative Coalition reported spending $127,145 on advertisements in support of businessman Mark Gilkison, who is also supported by digital ads from Kentuckians for Patient Access.

Three liberty-aligned PACs, as well as the PAC of Congressman Massie, have reported spending more than $30,000 on ads and canvassing in support of Rabourn.

However, the pro-Gilkison side has reported spending roughly four times that of Rabourn’s campaign and aligned PACs. His campaign recently sent a mailer hitting her for opposing a bill to stiffen penalties for animal cruelty, claiming she voted to “shoot Old Yeller.” Rabourn countered the bill would criminalize small farmers and said “weak candidates put out weak content.”

House D-91: Rep. Bill Wesley vs. Darrell Billings

Two-term GOP incumbent Rep. Bill Wesley of Ravenna is regarded as much more of a social conservative than libertarian-leaning, but he’s still receiving support from liberty PACs and opposition from an establishment challenger and PAC.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition is spending $59,380 on TV ads in support of famer Darrell Billings, who also ran against Wesley in the 2022 primary and lost by a wide margin. The PAC ad says he will stand with Trump against “the Biden border crisis” and “protect our rural way of life.”

Wesley is being aided by supportive mailers and digital ads from CEO PAC, while Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action is hitting Billings with digital ads that call him a “fake Republican” for contributing thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in the past decade — including former Gov. Steve Beshear and the 2019 gubernatorial candidacy of Rocky Adkins, who is now the senior adviser to Gov. Andy Beshear.

Billing’s campaign and the aligned PAC have reported spending more than $100,000. That’s more than three times that of the pro-Wesley side — a much larger spending advantage than what he had in the 2022 race.

House D-69: Rep. Steven Doan vs. Diane Brown

GOP Rep. Steven Doan of Erlanger was one of the three liberty challengers in the 2022 primary to knock off establishment Republicans from northern Kentucky who chaired influential committees.

Now in his first race for re-election, he’s facing a primary challenge from former attorney Diane Brown, who is supported by two establishment PACs.

Commonwealth Conservative Coalition reported spending $59,380 on ads supporting Brown, while Common Sense Kentucky also is targeting Doan with $25,000 of ads earmarked by the Louisville teachers union. The PAC of the Kentucky Chamber has also purchased digital ads for Brown.

Doan is supported by $8,382 of mailers and digital ads from CEO PAC and Conservatives for the Commonwealth Action and his campaign reported spending more than $42,000 as of last week, putting him just behind in the spending race against the pro-Brown side.

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-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.
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