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GOP Ky. Senate nominee Aaron Reed says he won’t ‘owe’ leadership that opposed him

Republican GOP Senate nominee Aaron Reed
Aaron Reed
Republican Aaron Reed narrowly won his Republican primary for the state Senate in Tuesday's primary election.

Aaron Reed says he was able to win his Republican primary despite opposition from the Senate GOP’s supermajority caucus, which will give him some clout in Frankfort.

Republican Aaron Reed intends to go to Frankfort in the 2025 session of the Kentucky General Assembly as a free man.

Reed narrowly won his Republican primary for the state Senate this week, defeating a candidate who was backed by the campaign committee of the chamber’s GOP caucus by just more than 100 votes.

While Reed’s victory still needs to be certified after a potential recanvass of the votes — and he would face a Democratic opponent in the Republican-leaning district this fall — he says he would come into the Senate beholden to no one in his party’s leadership.

“When everyone in Frankfort is against you and they throw everything that they can at you and you still pull it off, when you roll into Frankfort, you don't owe them anything,” Reed said.

The Republican Senate Caucus Campaign Committee backed candidate Ed Gallrein in the District 7 primary, spending at least $19,000 on ads supporting the Shelby County farmer’s candidacy. GOP Senate President Robert Stivers also personally contributed $2,000 to Gallrein’s campaign.

This move by GOP Senate leadership was controversial, as they took the unusual step of financially supporting a challenger to one of their own members. Incumbent Sen. Adrienne Southworth of Lawrenceburg ran for reelection, but finished a distant third behind Reed and Gallrein.

Gallrein told Kentucky Public Radio he is still considering whether to request a recanvass of the vote due to the narrow margin, as he trails Reed by 118 votes and one percentage point. Candidates have until Tuesday to make such a request, though recanvassing rarely changes margins by more than a few votes.

Reed said the caucus involvement for Gallrein against the incumbent Southworth “broke decorum,” adding that he received multiple calls from GOP senators who apologized and said they had nothing to do with it.

“It does show that there are some issues in loyalty that they have in their caucus, when they go against the sitting senator,” Reed said. “That's something hopefully we can fix.”

Similar to Southworth, Reed is one of more than a dozen GOP candidates for the legislature this cycle to come from the upstart and informally-aligned “liberty” wing of the party. Lawmakers from this liberty faction often take a harder line against government spending and for social conservative issues than leadership of the Republican supermajority, which has led to interparty friction.

Southworth too is loosely aligned with the liberty wing and often butted heads with Republican leadership on the Senate floor in her four years. She frequently challenged them on issues related to government spending, the constitution and chamber procedures. Senate GOP leadership sometimes responded in kind, including criticizing her for spreading false conspiracy theories about election fraud, dramatically redistricting her seat and even moving her seat in the chamber to a far corner, surrounded by Democratic members.

Reed hopes he can have a better relationship with the Senate’s GOP leadership, saying the circumstances of his victory means “they kind of have to eat a little bit of crow now and they have to come to me if they want to bring me into the fold.”

“You probably won't see me go in there and bodyslam everybody, but I'm definitely going to be able to come in at more of a position of power, so to speak,” Reed said.

Reed — a Navy SEAL combat veteran and owner of two gun stores who usually sports a cowboy hat — attributed his victory to hard work and the fact that he has been campaigning for the past three years. He was running for Senate in 2022 to challenge former Sen. Paul Hornback — partly spurring him into retirement — after which the Senate redistricted him into District 7 with Southworth.

“I think (voters) were hungry for a candidate who represented them in a way that I do,” Reed said. “My platform was faith, family and freedom… faith in God, family values, and standing up for freedom and liberty so that our kids can grow up in the way that we did. And that resonated well with folks.”

Reed noted that the primary race was one of the most expensive in the history of the Senate. Including the involvement of PACs supporting each of the three candidates, the final tally of spending in the race is likely to exceed $400,000.

He was the beneficiary of more than $75,000 of spending on ads and canvassing from Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative advocacy group. Heather LeMire, the director of the group’s Kentucky chapter, said Reed’s win — along with that of another liberty candidate AFP supported in the House — shows Kentucky “is one step closer in bringing economic growth, energy abundance, and education opportunity to people across the state.”

Asked about the GOP caucus involvement in the race, Stivers issued a statement on behalf of the Senate majority caucus defending their action.

“The caucus polled the race twice,” Stivers stated. “Our incumbent was not competitive in either the poll or the results (Tuesday). Further, she never asked for any help.”

Stivers added the caucus’ actions “were based on a former member, Paul Hornback, and the polling data. We supported Ed Gallrein.” He did not respond to a follow up question asking why their actions would be partly determined by a former member of their caucus.

Stivers also stated that the caucus “didn’t support any negative ads about Aaron Reed and we stand firmly behind him in the upcoming general election in November. The Kentucky Senate Majority anticipates welcoming Aaron Reed to our caucus next year.”

The Senate GOP majority will elect their leadership positions before the legislature convenes in January for the 2025 session. Reed said that election is on his mind, noting that Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer’s spot will be open due to his retirement and there will be “jockeying” for that position and others.

“I think it'll be an interesting session coming up because of that,” Reed said. “A lot of things happened that threw a monkey wrench in their plan, so to speak.”

Noting that he is a friend and supporter of several leaders of the liberty wing of the Kentucky GOP — including Congressman Thomas Massie and state Reps. Savannah Maddox and Felicia Rabourn — Reed said he is ideologically aligned with that movement.

“There's all these different cliques in the Republican Party,” Reed said. “I hope to unite that, if possible, by being an example of somebody who can stand up for freedom and liberty and not be an extremist, so to speak, but be able to work with everybody.”

Reed also noted that opponents of his candidacy tried to paint him as such an extremist, which he denies.

“The people that were working against me were trying to spin me off as some radical right-wing crazy militia leader,” Reed said. “And they've actually tried to make militia a bad word. I'm not a militia leader. They try to use that to scare people.”

The deadline for the secretary of state and the state board of elections to certify the winners of primary races is June 10. Should Gallrein request a recanvass — a simple and quick process of retabulating voting machines — and the outcome of the race does not change, he could also request a formal recount, which is more thorough.

Gallrein — also a retired Navy SEAL — said it is too soon to know whether he would request a recount, as he “will follow the established processes and make a decision based on discussions with election officials.”

Southworth was a supporter of multiple recount efforts after the 2022 primary election, including for candidates who lost by a wide margin. She also made an unsubstantiated claim about election officials stuffing the ballot box to rig a race during one of the recounts, which she made at a conference hosted by discredited election fraud conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.

Southworth did not respond to a request for comment on this story, and has not made any public comments about a potential recanvass or recount.

Rhonda Davis is the Democratic nominee in Senate District 7, facing no primary opponent this week. Her campaign has reported raising less than $1,000.

Nearly half of voters in the district — comprising Anderson, Henry and Shelby counties, as well as the southwestern corner of Jefferson County — are registered Republican, while 41% are registered Democrat.

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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