A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kelly Craft enters crowded — and perhaps still growing — Republican primary race for Governor

By Jack Brammer
NKyTribune reporter
Kelly Craft, an ambassador to the United Nations from 2019 to 2021 in the Trump administration and a prominent political donor with her billionaire husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, wants to be the next governor of Kentucky.

Craft, 60, of Lexington, joined the crowded field for the 2023 Republican primary election for governor Wednesday morning through a website announcement that had been long expected.

Craft, who also was ambassador to Canada during the Trump administration,  said, “I will seek to repair the connection between the people and their leadership, to give back to Kentucky a core of honesty and compassion.”

Former President Trump and Kelly Craft

She said the state’s best days are ahead. “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.”

Other Republican candidates vying for the state’s top elective post are Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Auditor Mike Harmon, state Rep. Savannah Maddox and former Northern Kentucky attorney Eric Deters.

Cameron greeted Craft’s announcement with his first ad, titled “Only One.” It highlighted Trump’s endorsement for him and his fight to stop abortion in Kentucky.

Other Republicans looking at the race include former Gov. Matt Bevin and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck.

The Republican nominee will face Democrat Andy Beshear, who is seeking another four-year term, in the November 2023 general election.

Beshear’s campaign, which reported in early July raising about $3.5 million, greeted Craft’s announcement with a fundraising email.

It played on the well-heeled Craft’s wealth, saying she is “ready to spend millions of her own money to defeat Andy.”

Craft, in a tweet Wednesday morning, said, “I’m Kelly Craft and I am running for Governor of Kentucky because I know our best days are ahead of us.”

Craft, a native of Barren County, and her husband, whose net worth has exceeded $1 billion, have contributed much to various political candidates and to the University of Kentucky sports programs. UK football coach Mark Stoops tweeted her campaign announcement.

The couple successfully bid $5 million with Central Bank last month at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s County Ham Breakfast last month at the Kentucky State Fair. Proceeds go to charity.

In 2014, the Crafts were state co-chairs for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Asked to assess Craft’s strengths and weaknesses as a gubernatorial candidate, Ryan Salzman, associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, said her family is well-known as well as her relationship with UK athletics.

He said her wealth is definitely a plus for campaign funds and her experience in the United Nations.

The professor said it might be possible that Trump will reconsider his endorsement for Cameron and side with Craft, whom he was with at this year’s Kentucky Derby.

“Donald Trump will endorse multiple candidates and we have seen that he will change his mind if he thinks the person he endorses is not going to win.”

As for her weaknesses, Salzman said, Craft is not as well-known as some of the other candidates because she has never been elected to state office.

“There’s a big difference in the election game and the government game,” he said. “But she could turn that into a positive by saying she is not political. It also will be interesting to see how much substance she shows on the issue.”

The professor said he expects Craft will try to balance the ticket by choosing a running mate who has experience in state office. State Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Craft. Wise is close to U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, who told the Associated Press that he will back Craft.  U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, has said he will support Maddox.

The Republican contest for governor will be exciting, Salzman said, but he would make Beshear the favorite in next year’s race.

“Andy Beshear has shown steady improvement since he became governor in 2019,” said the professor. “He has had numerous high-profile issues in his term, including COVID-19, tornadoes, flooding, and large economic development projects to bring more jobs to the state.”

Craft was born in Lexington to the late Bobby Guilfoil, a veterinarian, and Sherry Guilfoil. Both died in 2011. She grew up just outside of Glasgow. Her brother, Marc Guilfoil, is former executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Craft started a business consulting firm in Lexington. She got involved in politics as a prominent supporter and was a delegate to the 2016 GOP National Convention from Kentucky. She served on the UK Board of Trustees beginning in 2016 but left it a year later to become U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Kelly Craft married Joe Craft in 2016 after two other marriages for her and one for him. He is a coal-mining executive for Alliance Resource Partners, the second-largest coal producer in the eastern United States.

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