McConnell protege emerges as Kentucky's next rising star

McConnell protege emerges as Kentucky's next rising star
© Courtesy of Daniel Cameron

A former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills Biden: 'No party should have too much power' Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill MORE (R-Ky.) is preparing to take over as Kentucky’s next attorney general, marking the beginning of a political trajectory that could position him one day to take over for the mentor who helped him through college and nurtured his budding career.

Daniel Cameron, 33, will take office next month as the commonwealth’s top law enforcement officer. He won 58 percent of the vote in last week’s election, the same election in which Kentucky voters sent Gov. Matt Bevin (R) packing, though he has yet to concede. Cameron, the first African American to win statewide office in Kentucky in their own right, outpaced Bevin by nearly 120,000 votes.

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Cameron is the product of Elizabethtown, a former frontier town where his mother taught at community college and his father ran a coffee shop. In an interview, Cameron said his parents inspired his outlook on life.

“My parents are conservatives. Owning a small business lent itself to that viewpoint. Our connection to faith and church and that background sort of lent itself in our views to the Republican Party and our views on smaller government,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got to undergrad that I realized that not everybody held those views.”

It was that undergraduate experience that brought Cameron and McConnell together. Cameron won one of 10 McConnell scholarships, a competitive academic prize at the University of Louisville.

“I discovered he happened to be a Republican,” McConnell said of his protege. 

For the next decade, McConnell kept an eye on Cameron, through several years as a defensive end at Louisville, through law school and a federal clerkship. In 2014, McConnell asked Cameron to move to Washington to become his legal counsel.

Cameron came to Capitol Hill at a significant period. As an opioid epidemic ravaged his home state, Cameron worked with law enforcement groups to stem the flow of drugs. As coalitions built to reform the criminal justice system, Cameron monitored the proposals. And Cameron helped McConnell guide a new Supreme Court justice, Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchSupreme Court denies Trump request to immediately resume federal executions House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Justices appear cautious of expanding gun rights in NY case MORE, through a difficult confirmation fight.

“It’s more than just a professional relationship. He is a dear friend and has been an advocate for my career,” Cameron said of McConnell. “He is very loyal to those that are close to him and he bends over backwards to help those who are close to him.”

He returned to Kentucky in 2017, to a prominent Louisville-based law firm. When state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) decided to run against Bevin, McConnell thought he had the right candidate for the job.

“I encouraged him to run,” McConnell told The Hill in an interview. “I think he was the right man at the right time.”

Several of McConnell’s top political aides, including Terry Carmack and Scott Jennings, maneuvered Cameron past a Kentucky state senator in the Republican primary. In the general election, he easily outpaced Greg Stumbo, a longtime Democratic politician who held the attorney general’s office for four years in the mid-2000s.

“McConnell made sure there was plenty of money behind Cameron in the primary and general, both direct and independent,” said Al Cross, a veteran Kentucky political observer and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “And Cameron was a good vessel into which to pour resources; he may be young, but he meets well and makes a good talk, and McConnell has a good track record of picking talent.”

Perhaps the most striking moment of the race came in a television advertisement in which Cameron tied himself to Abraham Lincoln, who was born just miles away from Elizabethtown.

“It was hard to imagine a little boy who looked like me could someday help a president confirm a Supreme Court justice, or even run for attorney general. But here we are,” Cameron said in the ad. “When I come to work in this capital, I’ll visit Mr. Lincoln every day. I’ve been walking in his footsteps my entire life.”

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Though Kentucky is an increasingly red state, Cameron’s win broke one of the longest consecutive streaks of Democratic control of any office in the country. The last Republican attorney general in Kentucky left office when McConnell was just 6 years old.

“We had been singularly inept in electing AGs in Kentucky,” McConnell joked.

As he prepares to take office, Cameron says he sees his job as a chance to bring law enforcement groups together to combat the opioid crisis that has reached epidemic proportions in Appalachia. 

But some are already eyeing his potential for larger offices. McConnell, who is seeking a seventh term in the Senate in 2020, says he sees parallels between the two.

“There are a lot of similarities. Neither of us when we started out were well connected and had to start from scratch. But he’s earned this opportunity and he deserves the credit,” McConnell said. “All you could credit me with was observing the real talent.”