FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft launched her long-anticipated campaign for Kentucky governor on Wednesday, saying the state's “best days are ahead of us” as she joined a crowded lineup of Republicans competing to challenge Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear next year.
Craft quickly landed a key endorsement from U.S. Rep. James Comer, who represents a conservative western Kentucky district.
“I’m all in for her,” Comer told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “She has a work ethic that’s second to none. ... And I’m pretty confident that within 30 days she’ll be at the top of the polling. And I feel like she’s got what it takes to close the deal and not just win the primary but become our next governor.”
Craft spent years cultivating connections within the GOP as she and her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates. That gives her advantages as she transitions from party activist to political candidate — she enters the fray with the ability to tap into her family's wealth to finance her campaign and a resume from Republican Donald Trump's presidency.
But Trump has already endorsed another GOP candidate in the race — Attorney General Daniel Cameron — and Beshear's campaign portrayed Craft as “out-of-touch" with Kentucky's voters while touting the governor's economic stewardship and handling of tornado and flood disasters.
Craft pointed to her Kentucky roots in a campaign announcement that offered broad themes rather than policy positions.
“I’m running for governor because I know our best days are ahead of us," Craft said in a news release. “This movement is for all of us who still believe that we can lead in education, that government doesn’t get a seat at our kitchen table and that our kids should grow up in safe neighborhoods.”
For more than a year, political insiders from both major parties in Kentucky had wondered if, or when, Craft would enter the hotly contested GOP primary for governor. The party votes are in May 2023 and the general election is in November 2023, but some of her GOP rivals have already secured dozens of endorsements.
While Craft is well-known in political circles, she'll need to build name recognition with the Kentucky electorate. She began with an introductory video describing a rural upbringing that led to boardrooms and the United Nations.
“People said I was just some small-town girl, but my dad showed me that it's where I'm from that got me to where I am today,” Craft, a veterinarian’s daughter, said in the video.
Beshear's campaign quickly tried to shape its own narrative, casting Craft as an outsider.
“We welcome Kelly Craft to both Kentucky and to the governor’s race,” Beshear campaign strategist Eric Hyers said in a statement. “She’s an out-of-touch billionaire who ... will likely spend millions and millions of dollars to try to convince Kentuckians she cares about them.”
Hyers said Craft was a leading financial backer for the campaign of Kentucky's last Republican governor, Matt Bevin, who was narrowly ousted by Beshear in 2019.
Another GOP gubernatorial candidate, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, didn't name Craft in his response to her entry.
“All the candidates in this race are friends of mine and I expect a spirited primary," Quarles said in a statement. “We are focused on building a grassroots, people-first campaign that unites Kentucky.”
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 has benefited workers, farmers and businesses in Kentucky and across the country, Craft's campaign release said Wednesday.
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 Cameron’s bid for governor in the Bluegrass State. Cameron's campaign debuted a digital ad Wednesday touting the Trump endorsement.
Other GOP candidates for governor include state Auditor Mike Harmon and state Rep. Savannah Maddox. Maddox has been endorsed by Republican U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, who represents a northern Kentucky district.
Craft was born in Lexington — the state's second-largest city — and was raised on her family's farm near Glasgow in south-central Kentucky.
The Crafts have been major donors in supporting academic initiatives and institutions in the state, and she stressed her commitment to education in her campaign rollout. She pledged to direct “maximum financial resources” to support education, calling it the “most important duty” for government, while cautioning that it “has to be in partnership with parents."
Kentucky has tilted decidedly toward the GOP in recent years, but Beshear has consistently received strong approval ratings from Kentuckians in polls.
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 epic natural disasters — tornadoes that tore through western Kentucky last December and historic flooding that swamped parts of eastern Kentucky in late July.