Al Cross: As she runs with a big issue, Craft raises questions about her approach

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Elections should be about issues, not just candidates. So, Republican Kelly Craft is to be commended for making the first substantive commercial in the governor’s race about one of Kentucky’s most difficult issues: drug abuse that led to 2,250 overdose deaths in 2021.

We need to talk more about the issue, because it still swims in stigma that makes it difficult for individuals, communities and the state to deal with. When Craft alluded in the commercial to a family member’s drug problem, that surely made it easier for some members of her audience to talk about.

But the ad also allowed viewers to make false assumptions about Craft’s family history, and her reluctance to give more details may have added to the stigma. And now she has a follow-up ad that connects illegal immigration with smuggling of the powerful opioid fentanyl. It’s way off base.

First things first. Here’s what Craft said in the first ad, as the video showed empty chairs at family dinner tables:

“All across Kentucky, an empty chair. A place missing at the table. Families suffering because fentanyl and other dangerous drugs have stolen our loved ones away. As a mother, this is personal to me, because I have experienced that empty chair at my table.”

Craft’s clear implication was that a drug problem had kept one of her children from taking family meals. But for how long? Forever? No, “That person has not passed away,” she said in response to a question from Lexington’s WLEX-TV. Earlier, when Louisville’s WLKY-TV asked who the person was, she declined to say, but said “I have experienced a family member that has had an addiction.”

Following up with a news story for Kentucky Health News, which I publish, I told Craft’s campaign that I wasn’t interested in the family member’s name, just the relationship and the circumstances, to get a better understanding of how close she was to the issue.

The campaign issued a statement calling the person “a close family member” who lived in Craft’s household, “battled addiction and went to rehab. By the grace of God, that family member was able to overcome the addiction and move on with their life, but we all know the struggle never ends for a family and remains ongoing.”

The statement concluded, ” It’s insensitive and malicious to think an empty chair implies only death, and shows that those implying such don’t understand the pain caused by the drug epidemic.”

Insensitive? Malicious? Hardly.

University of Kentucky political-science professor Stephen Voss told WLEX, “I think most people seeing the ad likely inferred that she’s saying that a family member died, but that’s really sort of on the audience. It doesn’t say that. She says there’s an absent family member. She doesn’t say why they’re absent. The important thing for the electorate is, she’s claiming a special understanding of the policy issue.”

But if a misunderstanding is “sort of on the audience,” it’s also on Craft; everything in an ad is purposeful. She could have been clearer by saying, “As a mother, I have seen that empty chair while a loved one was stolen away by drugs.”

Journalists were right to question Craft about the ad, Voss said: “Once a candidate brings a family member into the debate and tries to use them to try to establish some kind of expertise or some kind of competence or understanding of an issue, then it’s hard for election watchers not to demand, ‘Who is this family member? What are you actually saying you experienced with them?'”

Craft’s latest ad takes advantage of her audience’s limited knowledge of subjects that are easy to demagogue.

“Joe Biden and Andy Beshear are ignoring the border crisis,” she says. “Criminals and illegal drugs like fentanyl are flooding into our state, ravaging our communities.”

Yes, Beshear failed to mention the drug problem in his State of the Commonwealth speech this month, but Craft is misleading voters by blaming illegal imports of fentanyl on illegal immigration.

“The vast majority of the fentanyl is not brought into the country by immigrants crossing the border in between ports of entry, but by drug traffic organizations smuggling it through legal checkpoints,” the nonpartisan Politifact said in deconstructing some Republican ads last fall.

Craft goes on to say that one of her “top priorities as governor will be to secure our state’s borders.” That looks silly in print, but probably sounds and looks good to voters who are wary of people who don’t look like them – especially as she ends the ad by saying, “If you’re a drug dealer, I’m coming for you.”

That’s a good priority for our governor, but it doesn’t mean the ad isn’t base demagoguery. Voters want and need leadership on tough issues; instead, they are being misled.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. The NKyTribune is the anchor home for his column.