Kelly Craft has a campaign for governor of Kentucky like none the state has ever seen.
At first glance, it is audacious.
Craft’s main political asset is the wealth she shares with her husband, coal magnate Joe Craft. She’s been ambassador to Canada and the United Nations, but has no experience in state government, and no apparent accomplishment in business – unlike our two wealthy governors who lacked government service, John Y. Brown Jr. and the late Wallace Wilkinson.
Craft needs credible people to vouch for her, but she lacks an endorsement from Donald Trump, who made her ambassador; he’s for Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
But Craft does have the backing of US Rep. James Comer of Tompkinsville, who went to Congress after he lost the 2015 Republican primary to Matt Bevin by 83 votes. Comer, who also has a home in Frankfort and would still like to be governor, has maintained much of his statewide organization, and it seems headed for Craft’s corner.
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Comer also helped Craft find a running mate for lieutenant governor. So says the running mate, state Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville, whom Craft announced as her choice in his hometown Sept. 21.
Wise told me that after he expressed interest in running for governor, “My good friend Jamie Comer had also reached out to Kelly and said, ‘Kelly, I got somebody you may want to keep in mind.’ I gotta give a lot of credit to Congressman Comer for introducing me to Kelly.”
Candidates for governor no longer have to start out with a running mate for lieutenant governor, as they did in 1995-2019. Republicans changed the law in 2020 to let gubernatorial nominees pick their No.2s after the primary.
That could enable party-building after what might be a fractious primary to pick an opponent for Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, but it could also be a boon to Craft. She needs a running mate who can shore up her lack of experience with state and local issues – and answer journalists’ questions.
She didn’t do that after her first campaign rally in her hometown of Glasgow Sept. 13. At Campbellsville, as she moved through the crowd after she and Wise left the stage, I asked her why she thought she needed a running mate.
“I am so excited to get on this campaign trail,” she said, trying to move on. I interrupted her and asked the question again. She turned away to shake more hands.
Craft had spoken for less than five minutes, saying little of substance other than praise of Wise. He spoke for more than 16 minutes, and on Sept. 27 answered questions about his speech in a no-limits interview.
Wise said in his speech, “We’re gonna put parents in charge of their children’s education.” Asked how, he said he was referring to the choice of schools, not decisions about books or curriculum, but he said school boards should listen to parents on those questions.
A Catholic in Baptist territory, Wise told the crowd that he is one of the most pro-life legislators “not just because I’m a believer but because life begins at conception. Period, end of story.” What if an abortion is needed to save a woman’s life? “I would have to see how that’s written up as legislation,” he said, in a typical dodge. Few Republicans want to be definitive on that issue right now; the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade made them the GOP the dog that caught the car.
Wise said in his speech that Beshear “chained the doors to the churches while letting woke businesses and abortion clinics remain open” early in the pandemic. No doors were blocked; what are “woke businesses”? The only specific example Wise could give was liquor stores, saying most Kentuckians “wouldn’t believe those are necessities.” Alcoholics not in recovery might disagree.
But Wise’s speech line won applause, as did his mention of “closing your business doors for seven weeks due to an overreaching governor.” Asked if most governors didn’t do likewise, following public-health advice, he said, “I only care about one governor, and that one.”
So, Wise knows issues, and can thrust, dodge, and parry. In a primary where there may be little substantive difference among candidates on issues, many voters could pick the campaign that looks like the best one to beat Beshear. But voters want to see that from the top of the ticket, too. Craft needs to talk about more than “keeping Kentucky’s promise.” Or is it now “restoring Kentucky’s promise?” One is as vapid as the other.
Wise said Craft’s “diplomatic skills” would help the state “close business deals.” But first she has to close the deal with Republican voters, and then with Kentuckians at large. To do that, she will need to fully engage.
Al Cross, a former Courier Journal political writer, is professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. Reach him on Twitter @ruralj.
This article originally appeared on the Louisville Courier Journal: Kelly Craft has wealth, a running mate and James Comer; what else?