Another Trump win in his proxy war with Ron DeSantis

"The Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky" claimed Daniel Cameron after his GOP primary win

Published May 18, 2023 5:31AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On Tuesday night, as the results of Kentucky's GOP gubernatorial primary trickled in, it became clear that state Attorney General Daniel Cameron wasn't the only winner in the race. Former President Donald J. Trump, who endorsed Cameron early on in a rare alignment with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, was also taking a victory lap — and not just because of Cameron's win. The election results also represented Trump's latest victory in his proxy war with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his likely rival in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

Cameron's win was resounding. As of Wednesday morning, with more than 99 percent of precincts reporting, he had claimed 48 percent of the Republican vote, with agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles receiving 22 percent and Trump's former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft trailing in a distant third at 17 percent. Out of the 12-person field, the Cameron-Craft rivalry commanded the most attention, largely due to the scorched earth tactics of both campaigns and a staggering $9.3 million of personal money Craft and her coal magnate husband invested in her bid. 

Her campaign appearances and television and internet ads were steeped in right-wing culture war rhetoric, particularly against transgender Kentuckians, and seemed to echo DeSantis's targeting of LGBTQ+ youth and calls to "fight back against woke indoctrination." On Monday evening, after a weekend poll showed her trailing Cameron, Craft received a last-minute endorsement from DeSantis — a surprise move that ensured the primary would be seen as a new front in his battle with Trump. 

Craft's lopsided loss is embarrassing for both candidates and represents a grave miscalculation on the part of DeSantis. Cameron — Kentucky's first independently elected Black statewide officeholder (former Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton was the first Black statewide elected official and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's running mate) and the first Black nominee for governor in either party — will face incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who was ranked in a recent Morning Consult poll by registered voters as one of the most popular governors in the country, in November. Cameron is expected to face renewed criticism for his handling of the 2020 Breonna Taylor case, in which three members of the grand jury reported his office did not allow them to consider homicide charges against the police officers who shot and killed the 26-year-old in a deadly raid on her Louisville apartment. Last year, the Department of Justice brought civil rights violation charges against four of the officers involved in her death, which fueled racial justice protests across the country.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

As Cameron's victory was declared, Trump World began to crow about the results and what they could mean for the GOP presidential primary. "President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party," Alex Pfeiffer, spokesman for Trump's super PAC MAGA Inc., tweeted. "The results in Kentucky's Republican gubernatorial primary tonight reaffirm that. Republican voters stand with President Trump, not Ron DeSantis. It's time to unite around Donald Trump."

Trump himself couldn't resist taking a victory lap on Wednesday morning with a post on his Truth Social platform that goaded DeSantis and misspelled Cameron's first name. "Congratulations to a 'star' in Kentucky, Danial Cameron, who easily won the Republican Nomination for Governor. He had my Complete and Total Endorsement. The DeSanctimonious backed candidate came in a DISTANT third. Ron's magic is GONE!"

As Cameron's victory was declared, Trump World began to crow about the results.

Until Monday evening, DeSantis had stayed out of the Kentucky race, even as tensions with Trump escalated in recent weeks. While polls show the former president with a commanding lead over DeSantis, who has yet to announce his candidacy but is expected to do so in June, Trump has been relentless in his criticism of the Florida governor in interviews, campaign email blasts and Truth Social posts. According to a recent analysis by Reuters, 40 percent of Trump's attacks on DeSantis have focused on policy, including Social Security, Medicare and foreign policy, a marked change from the usual Trump playbook. 

The remaining percentage places Trump in the more familiar territory of personal attacks, including a 40-second ad released last week in which Trump stated that DeSantis needed a "personality transplant." Trump's latest insult arrived in an interview with The Messenger that was published Monday. "He's very disloyal…He's got no personality. And I don't think he's got a lot of political skill." DeSantis, perhaps not wishing to antagonize Trump supporters, has mostly responded with veiled jabs and has so far left the bare-knuckle combat to third-party groups such as Never Back Down, a super PAC aligned with him that labeled Trump's CNN Town Hall "an hour of nonsense."

In the final weeks of the Kentucky primary, Cameron continued to tout Trump's endorsement despite the former president's serious legal woes and persistent election denialism. On April 4, Trump was indicted in Manhattan for 34 counts of falsifying business records. Last week, a jury found that he sexually abused the writer E. Jean Carroll and awarded her $5 million in damages. He also faces potential indictments from Fulton County, Georgia for efforts to overturn the 2020 election and from the Justice Department in separate investigations for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and his handling of classified documents and potential obstruction of justice. 

On Sunday night, two days before the primary, Cameron held a brief tele-rally with Trump. In his election night victory speech, the Republican nominee thanked the former president and declared, "The Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky."

The final poll released over the weekend before the election showed Cameron handily winning over Craft. Despite that forecast, DeSantis hoped he could lend a hand — and apparently couldn't resist the temptation to go head-to-head by proxy with Trump at the eleventh hour. His endorsement was delivered to prospective GOP voters via a robocall in which the Florida governor hailed Craft's conservative bona fides and framed her as the strongest Republican to run against Beshear, "a woke liberal governor who's put a radical agenda ahead of Kentuckians."

This represents yet another misstep for DeSantis, who has exhibited growing pains during his emergence on the national and international stages.

"The stakes couldn't be higher," DeSantis said. "I know what it takes to stand up for what's right, and Kelly Craft's got it. She's proven it. I'm strongly encouraging you to go out and vote for my friend Kelly Craft. Kelly shares the same vision we do in Florida. She will stand up to the left as they try to indoctrinate our children with their woke ideology. Kelly will fight against crazy ESG policies that are trying to end the coal industry in Kentucky, and Kelly's going to do everything in her power to end the fentanyl crisis that is hurting Kentucky families. When you vote tomorrow … vote for Kelly Craft and get Kentucky on the path to becoming a free state like Florida."

Given the timing of DeSantis's intervention, the primary never had the chance to be an all-out battle between the Florida governor and Trump. Despite his effusive endorsement of Cameron in June 2022 in which he hailed the attorney general as "a young star…born before our very eyes," Trump did not visit the Bluegrass State and confined his presence to the tele-rally. Taken together with Cameron's polling lead, this makes DeSantis's decision to endorse Craft all the more curious in terms of political calculation and strategy, and will doubtless lead to more questions about his electoral acumen and viability. It also represents yet another misstep for DeSantis, who has exhibited growing pains during his emergence on the national and international stages. 

During a recent four-country trade mission that saw him visit the UK, Japan, South Korea and Israel in an effort to establish his foreign policy credentials, DeSantis's high-profile appearance in London before British business interests and representatives was characterized as "low-wattage" and "horrendous." According to POLITICO, one attendee noted, "His message wasn't presidential." Another observed, "Nobody in the room was left thinking 'this man's going places.'"

That remains to be seen. DeSantis's expected campaign announcement next month could easily give him more juice, and his supporters predict he will be more willing to punch back against Trump. If so, Kentucky's primary will likely be a footnote in their battle for the GOP nomination. For now, based on Tuesday's election results, the loyalties of Kentucky's Republican voters, at least, seem to remain with Donald Trump. 

By Jason Kyle Howard

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of "A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music" and coauthor of "Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal." His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Salon, The Nation, The Millions, Utne Reader, and on NPR. He directs the creative writing program at Berea College and serves on the faculty of Spalding University's Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.

MORE FROM Jason Kyle Howard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis Daniel Cameron Donald Trump Elections Kelly Craft Kentucky Ron Desantis