FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican Kentucky Auditor Mike Harmon said Monday he’s running for governor in 2023, getting an early jump on a potentially crowded slate of challengers seeking to unseat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in a state that has continued to shift toward the GOP during Beshear’s time in office.
Harmon confirmed to The Associated Press that he’s entering the race and was filing paperwork to allow him to start raising campaign money. In a release, Harmon said he’s seeking the state’s top elected job to “help renew” Kentucky and guide it toward “the best version of itself it can be.”
“I want my children, grandchildren and every adult and child in Kentucky to know this state holds great opportunities for each and every one,” Harmon said.
He’s known for his folksy style and an ability to overcome the odds while building a political resume that includes a long stint as a state lawmaker. He’s in his second term as state auditor, having ousted the Democratic incumbent in 2015 and following up with a big reelection victory in 2019.
Harmon on Monday took aim at Beshear’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, criticizing the governor’s restrictions that were aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. Kentucky has had lower numbers of cases and deaths than neighboring states, but the governor’s actions have drawn fierce opposition from Republicans concerned about government overreach, a theme likely to be central to Harmon’s campaign.
“The people of Kentucky, they’ve had their liberties and their livelihoods suppressed and stolen,” he said in a phone interview. “And really a lot of the promises that have been made to restore or make people whole really have fallen very short.”
Beshear, who ended almost all virus-related restrictions, says his actions saved lives and were in line with decisions made in many states to combat COVID-19. Beshear says Kentucky’s economy has quickly rebounded from the pandemic and last week reported a massive state budget surplus.
State Democratic Party spokeswoman Marisa McNee defended Beshear’s record, saying the governor has done “a great job” in leading Kentucky through the pandemic. Kentucky’s economy, she said, is “set to take off under his leadership.”
“While the Republicans continue to play politics, Gov. Beshear is focused every day on doing his job, and we’re confident the people of Kentucky see that,” she said.
Harmon also blamed the governor for the long waits endured by many Kentuckians in seeking unemployment benefits during the pandemic-caused economic downturn. Harmon released an audit that pointed to a huge backlog of unread emails piled up in computers at Kentucky’s unemployment insurance office as it struggled to process claims. Beshear has countered that budget and staffing cuts hobbled the unemployment insurance system well before he took office.
Harmon said he hopes to build quick momentum with his early entry into the governor’s race.
“I’m not one of those that can personally finance, so it’s important for me to ... get the message out, build the network and raise the money just to make sure that we get our message out,” he said.
State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, another potential GOP gubernatorial candidate, said he and Harmon share the same goal of limiting Beshear to one term and giving Kentuckians a governor who “listens to the people, instead of lecturing to them.”
Harmon’s folksy style plays well on the campaign trail, said Scott Jennings, a Kentuckian and former adviser to President George W. Bush. But with a crowded race expected, lining up public support from key donors and grassroots leaders will likely be difficult this early in the race, Jennings said.
“Mike’s a great guy and won an underdog kind of race before,” Jennings said. “There aren’t many people in politics as comfortable in their own skin as Mike Harmon.”
Harmon quipped that the GOP primary for governor could eventually include “me and about 40 other Republicans.” He then predicted the race could ultimately draw four to six candidates.
As auditor, Harmon oversaw high-profile reviews of the University of Louisville Foundation; the Kentucky Horse Park; KentuckyWired, a statewide broadband project; and the use of state aircraft by former Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican. Harmon’s findings during a review of the Lawrence County attorney’s office led to the indictment of County Attorney Michael Hogan on wire fraud charges. Hogan twice ran for statewide office, losing both times in the Republican primary.
Harmon’s own political successes reflect the GOP’s rise to political supremacy in Kentucky. He broke through by winning a central Kentucky House seat traditionally held by Democrats. Harmon compiled a conservative voting record as a lawmaker, when Republicans were in the House minority. The GOP now has a supermajority edge in both the state House and Senate.
Harmon upset Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen in 2015, overcoming the incumbent’s massive fundraising advantage.
A year after Harmon left the House, Republicans won control of the chamber.
“If I’d known that’s all it took, I would have left years ago,” Harmon said Monday, displaying the humor he’s known for in political circles.