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With Kelly Craft’s entry, the GOP primary for Kentucky governor gets complicated

Kelly Craft announces her campaign for KY governor in a new video.
Kelly Craft for KY Governor Campaign
Kelly Craft announces her campaign for KY governor in a new video.

Republican voters hoping to make Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a one-term governor will have plenty of candidates to choose from during next year’s primary election.

Former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft is the latest candidate in the fray, announcing her run for governor this week after more than a year of speculation. Also in the GOP race are Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Trump-endorsed Attorney General Daniel Cameron, state Rep. Savannah Maddox and State Auditor Mike Harmon.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said Craft’s campaign rollout shows she’s getting plenty of professional help by her campaign staff, but there’s no clarity yet on where she stands on issues like abortion or inflation. Instead, in her first campaign ad, Craft said she believes "government shouldn't get in the way of our success.”

“There’s no real meat on the bones,” Cross said. “But it is little early to expect her to take any stance on issues. Craft has to show that she’s more than money.”

Cross said Craft’s rumored pick for lieutenant governor, Campbellsville state Sen. Max Wise, “could bring a certain substance to her campaign.”

Eastern Kentucky University professor Anne Cizmar said there might be more to Craft not being open about her stances on issues.

“Maybe she's doing this strategically to increase the amount of time she gets to spend in the media coverage by easing out these long waits for different policy stances. That's definitely possible. She wants to be asked about it rather than lay it all out there. She’s also probably gauging what the mood is among voters,” Cizmar said.

Cizmar said it’s also possible that inexperience could play a part.

“Having been at that other level of experience and not having run for elected office previously, some of these things just aren't things she has policy stances on yet,” she said. “But broad statements like in her campaign video definitely don’t help voters.”

Opponents target Craft’s wealth

Craft worked in former President Donald Trump’s administration, first as the ambassador to Canada, and later as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Before that, she ran a business advisory and marketing firm in Lexington and has been a prolific fundraiser for Republicans in Kentucky and across the country. She is married to billionaire coal magnate Joe Craft, the CEO of Alliance Coal, one of the largest coal companies in the country. 

But her profile as a billionaire and an elite has already been targeted by Democrats.

In a campaign email, Beshear criticized Craft for spending $2.5 million on a ham at the Kentucky State Fair’s Ham Breakfast charity auction.

“If she'll spend that much on ham, we know she'll spend even more to buy this governor's seat,” Beshear said.

The Kentucky Democratic Party launched an attack ad likening Craft to a billionaire reality TV show star.

“But private jets, out-of-state mansions and mountains of cash aren't qualifications to be governor. Fly somewhere else, Kelly. Kentucky isn't for sale,” the tweet stated.

Cross said Craft will be criticized as the candidate who could buy the election.

“And while that is possible, in a crowded primary, I do think she has to give people a clearer idea than she has so far about why exactly she's running, what she stands for and what kind of governor she would be,” Cross said.

Trump’s looming presence in the governor’s race

Former President Donald Trump easily carried Kentucky in the 2016 and 2020 elections and remains popular in the state, making his endorsement of Attorney General Daniel Cameron especially significant in the crowded Republican primary.

Shortly after Craft’s announcement, Cameron launched a campaign video titled “Only One,” reminding viewers of the endorsement, his fight against abortion rights and hislegal tussles with Beshearon mask and vaccine mandates. Cross said the endorsement might not be as significant as some think.

“We’re really in the dark about how Cameron obtained the endorsement, and maybe he even might withdraw the endorsement. He has to be careful about making his campaign a lot about Trump, especially with his legal troubles playing out,” Cross said, adding that Cameron “wants the Trump endorsement without the baggage of having to identify with Trump’s MAGA base.”

Cizmar said Cameron’s in a slightly advantageous position aside from just name recognition because he’s in good standing with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell while also being endorsed by Trump.

“I think the better seat to be in is the one Cameron is in frankly, who seems to have support from Mitch McConnell and an endorsement from Donald Trump, which is really looking at two different aspects of the party,” she said.

Though McConnell played a significant role in getting Trump elected and shepherded the former president’s three picks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the relationship between the two has been rocky. McConnell criticized Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, prompting the former president to repeatedly denigratethe Senate’s Republican leader on a variety of issues. 

“That said, while a Trump endorsement’s good, it’ll get you there, but I don’t think Trump really rules Kentucky politics,” Cizmar added.

Shaking up the GOP primary

Even though Kentucky is trending Republican, toppling Beshear might not be easy. The governor has an approval rating of 59%, reportedly higher than any other Democratic governor in the country, and $3 million in his campaign coffers. He’s also garnered bipartisan praise for his response to recent flooding in eastern Kentucky and last year’s devastating tornadoes.

But still, Republicans are lining up for the chance to run against Beshear.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, the first to enter the race, has racked up endorsements from judges, former state representatives and senators, while outraising his GOP opponents so far.

Cross called Quarles a “traditional candidate.”

“He has the potential of being a slow and steady candidate who can put together a small grassroots campaign that's necessary to win,” Cross said.

On Quarles, Cizmar said it's hard for her to know exactly where to situate his campaigns relative to other candidates.

“He strikes me as someone who is a strong party supporter, that he would also be very supportive of any Republican who wins the nomination, and would maybe really work on behalf of any Republican who wins that nomination. I'm not sure that everybody's sort of equally committed towards building the party or advancing the party,” she said.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, of Dry Ridge, whose libertarian-leaning stance has worked in her favor in northern Kentucky, has yet to prove broader appeal. So far her campaign has focused onmask and vaccine mandates, gas prices and stances against supposed “critical race theory. But Cross said her outspokenness could work for her.

“There are many Republican voters who like outspoken candidates, and she might appeal to a significant slice of Republican voters. But she has yet to prove that she has a broad appeal,” he said.

Craft’s entry could also open up a lane for at least one more candidate–former Gov. Matt Bevin, who is rumored to be considering another run after his failed reelection in 2019.

Craft’s ties with the former governor go back. When now-Congressman James Comer lost to Bevin in the Republican primary for governor in 2015, Craft shifted from Comer’s campaign to help Bevin win the governor’s mansion. 

Comer has still remained close with Craft and after her announcement, said he was “all in for her” in an Associated Press interview and that he was “confident that within 30 days she’ll be at the top of the polling.”

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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