FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft shied away from talking about her ex-boss — Donald Trump — and his support for a political rival Thursday as she formally entered the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary in Kentucky.
Craft, a longtime GOP activist who has quickly shown her fundraising prowess, vowed to combat the state's relentless drug-addiction problems if elected. She expressed support for relaxing Kentucky's near-total abortion ban to provide exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape and incest, while emphasizing the importance of prenatal and postnatal care. And she accused Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of taking credit for GOP-led initiatives.
On Thursday, two other Republicans filed for the governor's race: State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck. Quarles' grassroots network was on display, as a crowd of supporters cheered when he submited his candidacy papers.
Quarles focused on economic issues, pointing to the toll of high inflation on family budgets. He pointed to an uptick in the number of Kentuckians utilizing food pantries.
“A lot of people are spinning the economy is really strong right now, but the Kentucky that I know is struggling,” Quarles told reporters at the statehouse.
Beshear points to record-setting economic gains during his tenure in making his case to voters for a second term. Ten GOP candidates so far have entered the governor's race.
Craft's resume includes roles as the U.S. ambassador to Canada and later as the U.S. envoy to the United Nations during Trump's presidency. But when asked Thursday about Trump and his endorsement of fellow Republican Daniel Cameron, the state's attorney general, Craft promptly shifted attention to her campaign.
“I’m focused on 2023 and this race and meeting as many Kentuckians as I can across this state," Craft told reporters after filing her papers with the secretary of state's office. "We are going to run a very robust campaign. We have a solid infrastructure, and this infrastructure is built upon one thing and that is defeating Andy Beshear.”
Trump’s endorsement of Cameron's gubernatorial bid came before Craft entered the campaign.
Cameron has touted his support from the embattled former president, who remains popular with the party’s base. Cameron has found himself caught in the middle of the feud between Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the attorney general’s home-state political mentor.
Assessing the coming free-for-all among the GOP gubernatorial candidates, Craft said: “I think right now it’s like a Kentucky basketball game. You walk in the arena — the score is zero to zero."
Craft delved into abortion rights in a state where voters last November rejected a ballot measure that would have denied abortion rights in the state’s constitution.
A law being challenged before the state's Supreme Court imposed a near-total abortion ban, with narrow exceptions to save the pregnant person's life or to prevent disabling injury. The 2019 trigger law took effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Craft is anti-abortion rights, though she said she supports adding exceptions for rape and incest victims.
Craft is expected to have the upper hand in fundraising. She set a blistering pace for bringing in and spending cash in late 2022, outraising her Republican rivals while pouring more than $1 million into her campaign.
Craft already has gotten a head start on TV advertising, launching a biographical ad in the final days of the year to make her more familiar to Kentuckians.
She can always tap into her family’s wealth but so far has mostly resisted doing so. Craft spent years cultivating connections within the GOP as she and her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates.
Keck, after filing his primary candidacy papers Thursday, said he will emphasize the creation of “career-worthy jobs,” public safety, education and policies to support families.
Keck acknowledged his challenge to achieve the same level of name recognition as some of the other GOP candidates. But he said he will bring “a unique level of authenticity” in reaching out to voters and predicted his fundraising will be “robust enough” to be competitive.
“We look forward to the debates, where we get to hear the tough questions asked and I assume the tough questions answered,” Keck told reporters.
The winner of the GOP primary is expected to pose a formidable challenge to Beshear, who has maintained high approval ratings in a state that continues to trend toward Republicans. That’s one reason the hotly contested race will be closely watched nationally, coming the year before the next presidential election.