It was late last summer when state Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, admitted to the Associated Press that he was seriously considering entering the 2023 race for governor.
Since that time, he has been keeping a close eye on moves from other potential candidates considering a challenge to the incumbent Democrat.
Wise admits he was caught off guard when Daniel Cameron recently announced he was forgoing a bid for re-election as attorney general and would instead seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2023.
“A bunch of us had several conversations in the past few months and there was never any indication of him running,” Wise said. “I was surprised he made that decision.”
Cameron joins Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Auditor of Public Accounts Mike Harmon in a race that is shaping up to be a crowded one which could pit candidates backed by Sen. Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump. The senator is a mentor to Cameron.
Meanwhile, there is speculation that Kelly Craft, who served as an ambassador to Canada and later to the United Nations during the Trump administration, may also enter the race. She is married to coal baron Joe Craft, who is best known for his hefty contributions to the athletic programs at the University of Kentucky.
In addition, former Gov. Matt Bevin is reportedly interested in another run for his former job.
Wise said last week his decision will not be affected by who else enters the race.
“I have not necessarily made a decision, but I am leaning heavily towards running,” he said. “But in terms of a formal announcement, no.”
He expects to make a final decision in the next six weeks.
“I think patience is a definite virtue in running for something like this,” said Wise, who went so far as filling out paperwork to run in 2019 along with James Comer to challenge Bevin. “I think it’s easy for people to have knee jerk reactions when someone jumps in and they feel like they need to follow up within the next week or two. I don’t agree with that. I think it’s best to take a very timely approach.”
Running a statewide race will be a formidable challenge for Wise, especially in a field of candidates who have the experience of having done so.
It also will be an expensive endeavor. He estimated it would take $2 million to run a strong campaign.
Cameron, often described as a protégé of McConnell, could have the backing of the senator’s fundraising machine. Craft has deep enough pockets to self-fund her own campaign while Bevin has connections from his time in the office.
“I don’t feel like the money will be the issue,” Wise said. “I feel like I can be competitive in this race for governor. But, let me clarify one thing. For example, if Kelly Craft puts in $10 million of her own money, everybody is going to a problem fundraising to keep up with that amount.”
Wise insists money will not necessarily dictate the outcome of the race.
And, he firmly believes a rural candidate from Central Kentucky can be governor.
“I think you have to look at the counties that turn out to vote,” he said. “Look at the top 10 counties who vote in a Republican primary. I’ve represented Clinton County and Russell County and those are close to Pulaski County and Laurel County. I now have Monroe County and my new senate district goes into Warren County and that gets you moving to the west.”
In addition to his work as a state senator, he is proud of the connections he made around the state as the recruiting coordinator at Campbellsville University when his mother was the coach there.
Wise, who once worked for the FBI, is a former assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University and now is an instructor in the Patterson School of Diplomacy at UK.
Those jobs require attention to detail, he said adding that he knows how to crunch numbers. Wise is the son of a Hall of Fame basketball coach and was on her staff, understanding the importance of developing strategies to counter a strong opponent, he said.
In the end, Wise thinks voters will gravitate to someone they can relate to.
Most of the candidates in the race will point to their pro-life and pro-Second Amendment stances.
Wise has sponsored legislation that he hopes will give voters reasons to support him.
During the 2022 session, he was out front on a bill that would trigger a ban on abortions in Kentucky should Roe v Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court.
“I stood up on transgender issues as a way of saving women’s sports,” he said. “That won’t be very popular in places like Jefferson County, but in this area and in my district, it is very popular.”
Wise pushed for education policy changes as chairman of the Senate Education Committee and worked with law enforcement, educators and mental health professionals in the wake of the Marshall County school shooting.
“I’ve led on some pharmacy issues to help our local independent pharmacies, and on issues on pediatric cancer that affected me and my family,” he said.
It’s a long time to next May when the primary will be held, and there will be lots of maneuvering by different camps. There is no longer a requirement for a gubernatorial candidate to select a running mate before the primary, and some camps may decide to join forces.
For Wise, though, the race could end up like this year’s Kentucky Derby.
“It was a horse who came out of nowhere,” he said. “We can look at a political race like that. If the governor’s race has six plus candidates and if the primary doesn’t go over 30%, everyone is trying to jockey for 150,000 or so votes that are out there. That could lead things in different directions.”
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