Ever since the Republican primary for governor shaped up, the big question has been: Can personal wealth buy a GOP nomination for the state’s highest office? Now we must ask, can money and misinformation win the May 16 election?
Perhaps. The fabulously funded, falsehood-flaunting campaign of former ambassador Kelly Craft is catching up to Attorney General Daniel Cameron, as evidenced by his paid-TV attacks on her after he spent months as the clear leader in polls – perhaps creating an opening for Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
It would be nice (and accurate) to say that Craft is in striking distance because she is the hardest-working candidate and a charmer on the campaign trail. But it’s mainly about money – and perhaps about misinformation. This could be the first primary for governor in which the nomination is not decided by votes based on facts, but on false and misleading media messages.
The main example is Craft’s ad that shows “woke bureaucrats parachuting in” to a “Kentucky public school” and “forcing woke ideology into the classroom,” the object example being critical race theory, which is not taught in the state’s public schools. A pre-teen girl seems forced to say which pronouns she prefers, and Craft appears, saying, “It’s immoral ... I’ll dismantle the Department of Education.” But only the legislature can do that.
The ad’s basis is the department’s advice – not a requirement – that school districts honor students’ requests to be addressed by a certain name or pronoun. But now the department can’t “recommend policies or procedures for the use of pronouns that do not conform” to the sex listed on the student's original birth certificate, under a law sponsored by Craft’s running mate for lieutenant governor, Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville.
Some may dismiss the ad as a joke, but a matter for serious discussion should not be the topic of a cartoonish ad that uses bizarre bureaucrats to stoke voters’ fears of people with different lifestyles. It’s hateful and shameful. But Craft’s campaign is a shameless one, using Christian imagery in mailers that make it seem like she’s running for Sunday-school superintendent, not governor. What does evangelist Franklin Graham know about who should be our governor?
The Craft mailer with Graham’s endorsement says “This campaign is one built on faith.” Candidates who wrap themselves in religion violate the spirit of Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which says “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Cameron has no shortage of religion in his ads, as he attacks Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for closing churches at the start of the pandemic and says we need a governor who knows that “only faith can keep us strong.” Faith can be a great help in secular matters, but it’s not the sole source of strength.
For political strength, Republicans are counting on religion and social issues. A new ad from a group tied to the Republican Governors Association says “Beshear seems to think that young children are ready to make decisions about changing their gender.” Actually, in vetoing the bill that bans gender-affirming care for minors, Beshear cited the need to protect parents’ rights. (Beshear faces little more than token Democratic opposition, but the ad seems to be an effort to embarrass him by generating primary turnout from getting ardent social conservatives who remain registered Democratic.)
Misinformation has always been part of political campaigns, but until recent years there were significant disincentives. News media would make much of misleading ads, and confront candidates who ran them. Today, candidates avoid debates (Craft is the main absentee, but Cameron missed the KSR debate Wednesday) and play hide-and-seek with a depleted cadre of reporters, especially those working for newspapers – which, despite the demise of their old business model, remain the primary fact-finders in our society.
Many fewer people read the facts these days. Forty years ago, the state’s two largest papers — The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader, which then covered every major gubernatorial campaign daily in the last few weeks — had a combined circulation of more than 300,000. In 2003, it was around 180,000; last year, it was just over 70,000, including digital subscriptions, which were only recently added to newspapers’ postal reports.
In the place of journalism, which practices a discipline of verification, Kentuckians get their political information from social media, which have hardly any discipline or verification – or from television, which is largely superficial. In the 2008 U.S. Senate rate, advertising time on Lexington TV stations was 30 times that devoted to news stories about the race, few of which had any details useful to voters trying to make a choice. TV has changed little, and newspapers have changed a lot, so this column largely spits into the wind. So I guess I should say: Share this on social!