GOP Kentucky governor hopeful Kelly Craft taps into national anti-trans rhetoric
At the Gaslight Diner in Jeffersontown, Candy Konkler sipped from a mug of hot coffee, her bright red lipstick leaving a mark on the rim.
“I don’t know a whole lot about her and her policies,” Konkler said of Kelly Craft, the former ambassador to Canada and the United Nations who has pumped a record $9.25 million into her campaign for Kentucky governor so far.
Konkler, a Republican, hasn’t decided yet who she’ll back in the crowded gubernatorial primary on May 16th. But she’s intrigued by Craft.
“The one thing that I do like just from seeing her commercials is she’s against the ‘woke’ movement,” Konkler said.
By “woke,” Konkler said she meant school policies that go against her conservative Christian beliefs about gender.
“I just see our whole world going sideways, and we need to get back to God’s word,” she said. “God created man and woman.”
Black Americans have used the term “woke” for decades to refer to an awareness of racism. Now conservatives are using woke as a derogative shorthand to describe many progressive policies.
Craft has made so-called “wokeness” and anti-trans rhetoric a centerpiece of her campaign. Craft frequently holds events with Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer known for her opposition to competing against trans women athletes.
A Craft campaign commercial released in April featured a fictional teacher with purple hair and a nose ring who prompted a child to share her pronouns.
“Our schools are under attack,” Craft says in the ad. “Woke bureaucrats parachuting in to hijack our children’s future … It’s immoral.”
Many believe Craft is trying to replicate the playbook written by another Republican: Glenn Youngkin, who won Virginia’s race for governor in 2021.
Craft hired Axiom Strategies, the very same campaign consulting firm Youngkin used. So far, Craft has paid Axiom more $6 million for campaign work and media placements.
In Virginia, under Axiom’s guidance, Youngkin campaigned by blasting so-called “critical race theory” or CRT. That’s a phrase conservatives co-opted to refer to any discussion about structural racism.
Youngkin called his opposition to inclusive school policies a “parents’ rights” issue, and Craft is using the same language.
Anne Cizmar, professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s department of government, told LPM News it’s a message that’s likely to resonate right now.
“Whenever you kind of attach it to parental freedom, that’s going to speak to a chunk of voters particularly after all the COVID disruptions,” Cizmar said.
Many conservatives were already feeling aggrieved by school closures and mask mandates throughout the pandemic.
Cizmar said they were likely primed for an anti-big-government message. Now Republicans like Craft, Youngkin and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are tapping into conservatives’ fear that the government is pushing progressive policies on their children.
“That bringing up these topics related to LGBTQ [rights], or related to structural racism or critical race theory…is sort of undermining the values that they want to instill,” Cizmar explained.
But that message is dangerous for trans youth, according to Berea Independent School Board member Rebecca Blankenship.
“This is about segregation and shame,” Blankenship told LPM. “It's about setting trans students apart and telling them that they’re a danger, that they don't matter.”
Blankenship, a trans woman herself, said trans people, including kids, are already being impacted by Craft’s rhetoric, as well as new anti-trans laws sponsored by her running mate, Max Wise.
“The pain is real,” Blankenship said.
Thanks to Wise’s Senate Bill 150, which passed in March, Blankenship and the rest of the Berea Independent School Board are tasked with crafting a new bathroom policy that prohibits trans students from using bathrooms that match their gender.
That measure also bans gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors. The ACLU of Kentucky is seeking to block that portion of the law from going into effect.
Back at the Gaslight Diner, Craft took the microphone and doubled down on her message. Parents are being excluded from their kids’ education, she said. And who's to blame? The state’s top education officials.
“Because of this ‘woke’ education department,” she said.
Craft repeated her vow to dismantle the department and if elected. Asked by a reporter how she would accomplish that, Craft said she would start by dissolving the state board of education through executive order on her first day in office.
However, under current state law, the governor doesn’t have that power.
The GOP-led state legislature removed the governor’s power to dissolve the Kentucky Board of Education in 2021. That bill was a response to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s first act in office in 2019, when he dismissed the board of education members appointed by his Republican predecessor and installed his own new appointees.
Craft’s campaign against so-called “woke-ism” has gone beyond education policy. In a TV commercial released last month she accused Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron of letting the “woke” U.S. Department of Justice “take over” Louisville’s police department as it tries to remedy systemic civil rights violations.
Cameron called the ad a “flat out lie.” Meanwhile most of the GOP candidates for governor joined the calls against “woke” ideologies, each with their own unique definitions of what the term means.
Only Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, a longshot candidate in the Republican primary, called on candidates to move on from the term, equating it with “calling people names.”
“I don’t know how that’s going to move Kentucky forward. I don’t see it bringing people together,” Keck said during a debate in March.
The winner of the crowded Republican primary election will likely face Beshear, who is only facing minor candidates during the Democratic primary.
The primary elections are on Tuesday, May 16. Voters can cast ballots early in person between Thursday, May 11 and Saturday, May 13.