Republican insurgents gain (a little) traction Skip to content

Republican insurgents gain (a little) traction

Al Cross takes a look at the gains by the “Liberty” candidates, and what those could mean for both the GOP and KY Dems.

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Rep. Savannah Maddox, a leader of the “Liberty Caucus” (LRC official photo)

Some of Kentucky’s Republican primaries for the legislature were the latest chapter in a three-decade struggle between traditional, “establishment” elements of the state GOP and those who want it to be more conservative. The latter faction is gaining ground, but is making too much of its modest gains in low-turnout elections influenced by local quirks and other factors.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, whose outspokenness makes her a Frankfort facsimile of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), called the results “a wholesale rejection of business as usual” in the state capital. Her post on X was retweeted by 4th District U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie; he and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul are thought leaders in the self-defined “Liberty Caucus” of Republican insurgents.

Maddox’s claim hung on two hooks: the 4.4-percentage-point loss of House Agriculture Committee Chair Richard Heath of Mayfield, and the overwhelming defeat of moderate Rep. Kilian Timoney of Nicholasville. She would have a stronger case if House Health Services Committee Chair Kim Moser of Taylor Mill had not won renomination (by just 84 votes out of 3,000 cast).

Heath, a veteran legislator who had nearly won two statewide primaries for agriculture commissioner, lost to Liberty-branded challenger Kimberly Holloway by 161 votes out of 3,647 cast. Even Holloway said she was surprised, but Heath was undercut by lawsuits he had taken – a traffic-accident case that some saw as frivolous, and one that threw Holloway off the 2022 ballot.

Timoney lost by almost 3 to 1 to Thomas Jefferson – whose name evokes a higher plane than that inhabited by his campaign and an allied group, which sent mailers labeling Timoney “Groomer Killian” and insinuating that he was a sexual predator because he voted against Senate Bill 150, the anti-transgender law of 2023, and a ban on transgender athletes. (Moser became a target when she voted against SB 150 and said, “To the rest of the world who is watching Kentucky: We are not Neanderthals.”)

Some of the money behind Jefferson came from supporters of “gray machines,” gambling devices that were banned by a 2023 bill Timoney sponsored. But the really big money in legislative elections came from establishment sources such as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and a moderate-establishment group that labeled itself the Commonwealth Conservative Coalition.

Maddox said the CCC “wasted $846,818 trying to defeat rock-solid incumbents,” and “EVERY incumbent whom the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce endorsed AGAINST won.”

Those establishment groups and Senate leaders backed Ed Gallrein against fellow Shelbyville resident Aaron Reed and incumbent Sen. Adriene Southworth, a right-wing election denier who ran third because of her extreme views and a radical redistricting that gave her all new voters except those in her home county of Anderson.

Reed had wanted to run in 2022 but the redistricting put him in an odd-numbered district in a year when only even-numbered districts were on the ballot. He had been campaigning since 2022, and won Anderson, a key to his victory. Establishment Republicans expect him to be more of a disrupter than she was. He told Joe Sonka of Louisville Public Media, “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.”

Reed and Jefferson both have Democratic opponents, who could have a chance in an election that will have a much larger turnout than the 13 percent statewide in the primary.

But low turnout does not fully explain the election results. Most of the energy in the Kentucky GOP is clearly with those who want it to move farther right, who reject the leadership of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, and who look to Paul and Massie for ideological guidance and inspiration. Maddox was probably right when she said after the election that the insurgents’ successes will energize them for the next round of legislative elections in 2026.

What she didn’t say, and what is also likely, is that some incumbent Republicans will likely move further right to fend off intraparty opposition. That could provide openings for Democrats to begin rebuilding their legislative influence, a task that will take time and more leadership than Gov. Andy Beshear has shown in his role as party leader.

One more note about the primary: I engaged in wishful thinking before the election by saying I would be watching the presidential vote for signs that former president Donald Trump’s support might be eroding in the face of his “hush money” trial. But Kentucky Republicans gave only 6.4 percent of their vote to Nikki Haley, who had suspended her campaign but not endorsed Trump. (She said later in the week that she would vote for him.) Her votes and those for Chris Christie (who still hasn’t backed Trump) and “uncommitted” totaled only 11 percent, making Kentucky’s Republican voters look even more Trumpy that West Virginia’s.

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Al Cross

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and a professor at the University of Kentucky. He served as a political reporter and commentator at the Courier-Journal for 26 years.

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