By Kelly Craft
May 23, 2023 - In Kentucky’s coal country, Kelly Craft’s focus on her connections to the industry won over some Republican voters in last week’s primary but not enough to push her past Daniel Cameron’s high-profile endorsement, party members from both ends of the state said.
Coal and its effects on local utility rates is a frequent topic at meetings of the Letcher County Republican Party.
“The number one thing you’re gonna hear the most complaints about is our utilities,” said Mitch Whitaker, who chairs the local Republican executive committee in the heart of Eastern Kentucky’s coalfield.
So when Craft — a candidate for the GOP nomination for Kentucky governor — touted her family’s deep connections to coal and blamed rising utility costs on the closure of coal-fired power plants, she got “some traction” in Letcher County, Whitaker said.
“Everyone I talked to said, ‘You know, it’s a good thing that somebody’s making an issue out of coal and our high utility rates,’” Whitaker told the Herald-Leader. Despite a decline in its economic impact locally, coal is still a “top three” issue there, he said.
But it wasn’t enough. Like much of the state, Attorney General Cameron won Letcher County with a comfortable margin, capturing 37% of the votes in the Republican primary May 16. Craft was in second with a quarter of the votes.
She saw similar results across Kentucky’s coal country. Thirteen counties across the state had at least 50 coal mining jobs this year, state-tracked coal mining data from January through March showed. In those counties, Craft performed better than the high-dollar, third-place finish she got statewide.
If the primary only included those 13 counties — 10 of which are in Eastern Kentucky and three are in Western — Craft would’ve come in second with 22% of a little over 20,000 votes. Though Cameron would still have had a commanding victory with 45% punching in his name. But why?
“Just by the sheer magnitude by which Daniel Cameron won, I have to believe that the Trump endorsement and his celebrity status is what really put him over the line,” Whitaker said of the election in his county. “To my knowledge, he is the only one of those major three candidates that didn’t set foot in Letcher County.”
That answer wasn’t too different on the western side of the state in Hopkins County. The county is also “Trump country,” said Bill Plunkett, a member of the county Republican party’s executive committee.
Along with the endorsement, Plunkett said Cameron was able to express his Christian ideologies and strong demeanor well to voters in the county. They rewarded him with 55% of the county’s votes.
Despite decades-long declines in coal production statewide, coal certainly still matters in Hopkins County, which recent state data said had over 450 coal jobs from January through March of this year.
Alliance Resource Partners — the mining company owned by Kelly Craft’s husband, Joe — has a mine in the county. Alliance also has a mine in nearby Union County and a third in Pike County in far Eastern Kentucky. That didn’t seem to matter too much as Cameron won all three counties.
Hometowns certainly did seem to matter though. In Perry County — where Joe hails from — Kelly did relatively well, only losing to Cameron by 19 votes.
Local issues certainly mattered quite a bit to some. David Sharp, the chair of the Hopkins County Republican Party, said Craft’s focus on national issues “didn’t play real well” in his county.
Attacks on Craft from fellow candidate Eric Deters, who attempted to challenge her Kentucky residency with a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed, did no favors for her in Hopkins County, Sharp said.
He also heard comments from folks locally who said they were switching their support from Craft late in the primary cycle.
“Just because they felt like Craft was trying to buy the election with family money and everything else,” Sharp said. “But I mean, I didn’t see it that way. When you’re running a campaign, you need money.”
Back in Letcher County, Whitaker said he didn’t decide who to vote for until the election was near. He was split between Craft and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
He ultimately picked Quarles, noting the commissioner had an Eastern Kentucky-specific plan available on his website. All of the other candidates relied on talking points, not necessarily a policy platform, Whitaker said.
Plus, Quarles’ locally focused campaign meant he was in Letcher County “more than every other candidate combined.”
“I think that means something to voters,” Whitaker said, noting that Letcher isn’t exactly a short drive from Frankfort.
Asked how Cameron can build an edge in Eastern Kentucky for his general election match-up with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, Whitaker said there’s a growing number of flood victims who are dissatisfied with how rebuilding efforts have gone on.
“I think that the flood recovery could have been done better,” Whitaker said. “And I think that’s what Daniel Cameron should capitalize on.”
Both Sharp and Plunkett said the party needs to come together after a contested, 12-candidate primary that might’ve exposed some divisions.
“If we don’t come together as one party,” Sharp said, “Andy Beshear is our next governor.”