Democracy Derby: Kentucky secretary of state tests McConnell candidate quality theory


Democracy Derby: Kentucky secretary of state tests McConnell candidate quality theory

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All eyes may be on 2024, but 2023 is an important election year for some states, not least Kentucky. Top of the card is Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY) and whether the Democratic incumbent can win again in a typically red state, possibly launching himself into the 2028 presidential conversation. This Washington Examiner series, Democracy Derby, will take a closer look at Beshear’s prospects, the makeup of the Bluegrass State as a whole, and whether Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) health may raise the stakes.

Election integrity matters in Kentucky, and that could be good news for the incumbent secretary of state.

Michael Adams handily won his primary battle against two conspiracy-tinged challengers and now faces former state Rep. Charles “Buddy” Wheatley in the general election.


In a state where Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) touches every corner of the Republican Party, Adams is no exception. He’s a former McConnell Scholar at the University of Louisville, and perhaps, more importantly, he gave no quarter to former President Donald Trump’s stolen election claims in 2020.

“He’s had a number of challenges, and he’s handled them all beautifully,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to McConnell. “Mike has carved out a reputation as being probably the most effective secretary of state we’ve ever had.”

Jennings is no neutral observer — he was Adams’s college roommate — yet his assessment seems to gel with the numbers. Adams bested former Miss America Heather French Henry by 64,000 votes in 2019, the same election that saw Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY) take office in the traditionally red state.

But the real challenges began later. Adams worked to alter election laws to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic during his first year in office, then teamed with Beshear and the state legislature to make some of those changes permanent the next year.

While Trump won Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, his stolen election complaints still reverberated in the Bluegrass State. Stephen Knipper, Adams’s eventual primary opponent, went on a “restore election integrity” tour in 2021 before announcing his candidacy.

Ahead of the primary, Adams’s reelection campaign posted on X, “We must keep the cranks, kooks and RINOs out of this office.”

Voters agreed. Adams took 63.9% of the primary vote, compared to just 26.5% for Knipper and 9.6% for third-place candidate Allen Maricle.

The situation could shake out well for Adams in the general as well.

State Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R-KY) must navigate the thorny issue of abortion as he attempts to wrestle the governorship from Beshear. That won’t be an issue for Adams, and Democrats also can’t attack him for entertaining stolen election claims.

Adams has helped push through conservative priorities, such as requiring a photo ID to vote and purging the voter rolls of people who have died or moved out of state. His motto, “Easier to vote and harder to cheat,” has been used by other Republicans such as Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). Lastly, Adams has not embraced early and mail-in voting to the extent that some liberals would like.

But using those points to boot him from office will be a tough sell in a solidly red state, argued University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss.

“He’s going into the statewide elections in perhaps the strongest position of any of the Republicans on the ticket,” Voss said. “I can’t promise he’ll get the most votes, but he regularly gets statements of support from independent or democratic voters.”

Adams has made that kind of statement himself, telling local news station WKYT, “I can’t go to Kroger or CVS or a restaurant without people coming up and thanking me for my work, especially Democrats. They say, ‘I never voted for a Republican in my life and I’m voting for you.’”

McConnell, who Jennings described as the godfather of the Kentucky Republican Party, has urged the GOP to move beyond Trumpy types in major elections. After a disappointing midterm showing, the Senate minority leader said he’d be looking for “quality candidates” ahead of 2024 while urging Trump to stay out of it.


Adams may be the type of politician McConnell had in mind, even if most Republicans won’t enjoy the kind of cross-party appeal he’s aiming at.

“Michael Adams is the Republican that Democrats like to point to to show that they don’t hate all Republicans,” Voss said.

© 2023 Washington Examiner
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