GLASGOW, Ky. (AP) — Touting her time as United Nations ambassador for Donald Trump, Republican Kelly Craft told a hometown crowd Tuesday that her work on the world stage showed she's tough enough to “fight for Kentucky values” as she kicked off her 2023 campaign for governor.
Looking past her many GOP rivals and moving quickly to join a contest that has all but overshadowed the 2022 midterm elections in Kentucky, Craft zeroed in on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in a hard-hitting evening speech coming days after she announced her candidacy.
She said Kentuckians have been hit by “Democrat-made disasters” of inflation and pandemic-related lockdowns during Beshear's tenure. It was part of her effort to link the governor to President Joe Biden, who was trounced by Trump in Kentucky in the 2020 election.
“It’s time to fight back against the failed Biden-Beshear policies that are making life harder and more expensive,” Craft told a few hundred people gathered outside the Barren County courthouse.
Following a strategy that catapulted the GOP to dominance in Kentucky, Craft and other Republican contenders for governor are trying to nationalize the race.
And they've repeatedly attacked the COVID-related restrictions Beshear put on businesses and gatherings earlier in his term. The governor says his actions reflected guidance from Trump’s coronavirus task force and, more importantly, saved lives.
Craft, who grew up on a farm in Barren County in south-central Kentucky, enters the crowded Republican primary for governor with the advantage of being able to tap her family’s wealth to finance her campaign. Craft spent years cultivating connections within the GOP as she and her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates. Beshear, who has maintained strong job approval ratings from Kentuckians, is seeking a second term in 2023.
Craft's entry in the gubernatorial race had long been anticipated. After her Tuesday speech, Kentucky Democratic Chair Colmon Elridge referred to it as “the phoniest rollout money can buy.”
“But Craft can’t write a check to hide her jaw-dropping lack of qualifications or experience,” he said in a statement.
Making the transition from longtime party activist to political candidate, Craft sounded themes heard from other Republicans in stressing her conservative credentials. She bemoaned Kentucky's deadly illegal drug scourge, touted her support for gun rights and vowed to ensure that schoolchildren are taught the basics and “not radical woke ideologies.” And she promised to crack down on crime.
“Don't you think we need to fire Andy Beshear?” Craft said to applause. “Well, I do, too.”
She also played up her time representing the United States as its ambassador to the United Nations.
“President Trump sent me into that snake pit at the United Nations for a reason,” Craft said. “He knew this Kentucky girl would be strong enough to stand up for American, for Kentucky values. And tough enough to take on the Communist Chinese Party.”
She later added: “If I can fight for American values at the United Nations, then I can fight for Kentucky values right here at home.”
Trump first appointed Craft as U.S. ambassador to Canada, where she played a role in facilitating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, Trump’s long-sought revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The updated trade deal brought manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and in doing so “put Kentucky workers and American workers first,” she said, borrowing a theme reminiscent of Trump.
In 2019, Trump appointed Craft to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
But her connections with Trump, who easily carried Kentucky in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, were neutralized by the former president’s endorsement this year of GOP Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s bid for governor in the Bluegrass State.
In her speech Tuesday, Craft decried Kentucky's ongoing surge of fatal drug overdoses, which rose again last year, surpassing 2,000 deaths in a record death toll in the state.
“To restore the promise of Kentucky, we need to stop the endless flow of illegal drugs from Mexico that are destroying our children's lives,” she said.
Other GOP candidates for governor include state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Auditor Mike Harmon, state Rep. Savannah Maddox and retired attorney Eric Deters.
The Democratic governor is expected to highlight his management of the state’s economy in asking voters for a second term. Kentucky has posted records for job creation and investments during his term and has recorded its lowest-ever unemployment rates.
Beshear also has won bipartisan praise for his administration’s responses to natural disasters — tornadoes that tore through western Kentucky last December and historic flooding that swamped parts of eastern Kentucky in late July.