FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Facing an early test in her bid to become Kentucky's next governor, Republican Kelly Craft is trying to navigate turbulence caused by one of her first ads, which aimed at connecting the wealthy ex-diplomat with voters by highlighting the state's heart-aching struggles with drug addiction.
In a recent TV commercial, Craft said the fight against drug abuse is personal, confiding she's experienced "that empty chair at my table." The former United Nations ambassador - seen as a top-tier candidate in a large GOP field - didn't disclose personal details in the widely aired ad. As questions swirled about its meaning, Craft told Kentucky Health News that she had a "close family member" who went to rehab and "was able to overcome the addiction and move on with their life."
The details stirred backlash from some Kentuckians who viewed the ad as insensitive because they first interpreted the "empty chair" reference to being about someone who died. Some of the most pointed criticism has come from people whose loved ones lost their lives to addiction.
The blow-back has garnered considerable attention in a race being closely watched to see if popular incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear can overcome his party's weak standing in Kentucky. Beshear is seeking re-election in the GOP-trending Bluegrass State.
A group of grieving mothers showed up at a Craft campaign appearance last week, hoping to confront her about the ad and press for details about how she'd curb drug addiction if elected. They were blocked from attending, WLEX-TV reported. A campaign staffer collected contact information from the group, in case they might speak to Craft another time.
Craft can "set a good example" by meeting with such groups, since it's understandable that some people have questions about the ad, said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator who once served as an adviser to former President George W. Bush.
"Kelly could show some leadership skills here by having the guts to meet with people who are upset with her," Jennings said.
Her campaign didn't immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking additional comments.
As the matter has festered, a Lexington Herald-Leader columnist wrote that Craft either was getting bad advice or misunderstands "the 'empty chair' mess she's in right now."
Craft - among a dozen GOP candidates competing in the state's May primary - entered the governor's race with an overwhelming money advantage. She's set a fast pace in raising and spending campaign cash, and can tap into her family's enormous wealth to bankroll her campaign.
She got a head start on competitors with TV ads meant to raise her name recognition and take a stand to fight the seemingly intractable drug abuse problem. Fatal drug overdoses rose nearly 15% in Kentucky in 2021 and surpassed 2,000 deaths, the state said last year.
Instead of backing off as pushback against the ad mounted, Craft's campaign has pressed ahead with messaging on the drug issue. She has said an empty chair can mean many things.
In a recent follow-up video, the wife of Craft's running mate explained what an "empty seat at the table" has meant for her family.
"I firmly believe that means different things for different families," Heather Wise, the wife of GOP state Sen. Max Wise, said as she spoke about how addiction has "ravaged" her family.
An empty seat can mean the absence of loved ones in rehab or in jail due to addiction, she said. She said she also lost close family members to addiction.
"Not every family has had the worst-case scenario -- that permanent empty seat at their table that we have experienced," she said.
As part of her anti-drug theme, Craft has tried connecting Beshear to President Joe Biden's immigration policies on the nation's southern border. She blames those policies for contributing to an influx of illegal drugs to Kentucky.
Beshear responded that a "strong national security requires strong border security," and said Kentucky has done its part during his term. He noted that hundreds of Kentucky National Guard soldiers have deployed to the nation's southwest border during his tenure and that a Kentucky guard member died as part of the mission.
"For somebody wanting to be governor to talk about the border and to not mention the sacrifice and heroic service of our National Guard, and recognize their loss, I think is disrespectful and disqualifying," the governor said.
The back-and-forth enables Craft to portray herself to GOP voters as a fighter, Jennings said.
"That's what this entire primary is missing so far - someone explaining why they are the best person to defeat Beshear, and how they plan to do it," Jennings said.
Other GOP contenders for governor include Attorney General Daniel Cameron, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck.