GOP primary escalates as Craft supporters launch attack ad

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A group supporting Kelly Craft’s bid for governor in Kentucky went on the attack, launching an ad portraying Republican rival Daniel Cameron as an “establishment teddy bear” who hasn’t been tough enough in challenging President Joe Biden’s border policies.

Cameron pushed back Monday, pointing to lawsuits he joined as Kentucky’s attorney general to try to block Biden policies. And Cameron played up his endorsement from Donald Trump, noting the ex-president backed him “over candidates who used to work for him” — a reference to Craft, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Trump’s presidency.

The back-and-forth marked the start of a more combative phase as the GOP contest ramps up ahead of Kentucky’s May primary. Twelve candidates are competing for the Republican nomination for governor. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is seeking reelection this year in the GOP-trending Bluegrass State.

The GOP race intensified as the outside group backing Craft entered the fray with the ad attacking Cameron. It’s an indication that Craft supporters see the first-term attorney general as her biggest rival for the GOP nomination.

The ad portrays Cameron as “nice” but “no strong Kentucky conservative.” The ad says Cameron failed to join in a lawsuit by other Republican attorneys general to defend border wall construction after Trump left office.

“With illegals and deadly fentanyl flowing across Biden’s open borders, who would we rather have leading Kentucky? A conservative grizzly bear or Daniel Cameron — Kentucky’s soft, establishment teddy bear,” the commercial said.

The ad ends by showing Cameron’s face being replaced by a teddy bear wearing a suit.

The Kentucky attorney general’s office said Monday that it “was not given the opportunity” to join the October 2021 lawsuit regarding the border wall, but added that Cameron “has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to addressing the crisis at the southern border.”

In January of this year, Cameron joined in a multistate lawsuit against Biden’s administration. The suit was over a major change in immigration policy that would turn away more migrants but still allow 360,000 people to legally enter each year from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

With more than two months before Kentucky’s primary, Cameron called it “flattering” to be attacked in the ad, saying it “lays bare the fact that my opponents know they can’t win on their own merits.”

“I know voters are smart — they’ll see this for what it is — silliness,” Cameron said in a statement. “Kentuckians know I’ve been a conservative fighter on every issue that matters to them.”

Cameron’s campaign pointed to a number of other actions taken by the attorney general on immigration and drug-related issues.

In early 2022, Cameron joined 16 other states in urging the U.S. State Department to take tougher actions to prevent fentanyl from entering the U.S., Cameron’s campaign said. Nearly a year ago, Cameron helped lead an effort to stop Biden’s administration from terminating a Trump-era policy that allowed the Border Patrol to immediately return illegal aliens to Mexico if they were apprehended. Cameron also has urged the Biden administration to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, which Cameron says would open up more resources for law enforcement.

Biden’s administration recently said it will generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S. southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through, mirroring an attempt by the Trump administration that never took effect because it was blocked in court.

Craft has already run a series of TV ads, introducing the wealthy ex-diplomat to a wider audience while laying out her broad policy goals to combat illegal drugs and revamp the state’s education department.

As the GOP debate roiled over immigration and drugs, Beshear focused on the economy Monday by announcing the state achieved its lowest annual unemployment rate on record last year. Kentucky also has set record levels for job creation and private-sector investments during Beshear’s tenure.

“With the lowest unemployment rate in our state’s history, we know more Kentuckians are chasing their dreams and providing for their families right here at home,” the governor said.

The Kentucky campaign is drawing national attention — a year ahead of national races for control of the White House and Congress — to see if the popular Democratic incumbent can overcome his party’s struggles in the Republican-leaning state.