Kelly Craft: 'Empty chair' in drug-focused campaign ad refers to living family member

kelly craft.jpg
Posted at 6:46 AM, Jan 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-23 06:28:12-05

(LEX 18) — Kelly Craft clarified remarks she made in a widely broadcast campaign ad about her family’s experience dealing with drugs and the opioid crisis.

In the ad, the Republican primary candidate for Kentucky governor says families are suffering because fentanyl and other drugs have stolen loved ones away, adding that all across Kentucky it has led to empty chairs at family tables.

“As a mother this is personal to me because I've experienced that empty chair at my table,” Craft, the former U.N. ambassador said in the ad.

Most people who saw the ad likely inferred that one of Craft’s family member’s had passed away as a result of addiction, according to University of Kentucky Political Science professor Dr. Stephen Voss.

When asked about the “empty chair” at a campaign event Thursday evening, Craft told LEX 18: “That person has not passed away, we were so fortunate. It was a very difficult chapter in our lives and I thank God every day that we were able to come through this.”

“I thought she was playing with the lives of Kentuckians to her political advantage,” said TJ Roberts, who lives in Northern Kentucky.

When he saw the ad originally, he felt like he could for the first time relate to Craft given her background, Roberts said. He believed that Craft had lost a member of her family to addiction.

“This is something that hits home for me,” Roberts said, revealing he lost his father to an overdose when he was 6 years old. “For the rest of my life I’m not going to know what it’s like to grow up with a father because of that.”

There’s a clear difference between having a family member who struggled with addiction and someone who died from addiction, he added.

“That empty chair stops being an empty chair once they overcome addiction, once they actually get help,” Roberts said, comparing it to how he lost his father. “That is growing up without a father. It’s a totally different scenario.”

Roberts said that Craft’s ad “embellished” the truth.

“For it to be made up, we appreciate that you take the epidemic seriously but you shouldn't be making it as a claim that your own personal family has lost someone due to this,” Roberts said.

When asked for her response to those who feel she embellished the truth, Craft told LEX 18, “The ad is very clear, as a mother, as a family member I have felt that pain, luckily we were able to continue and have that seat at our table and I’m going to fight every day because I understand, and my heart goes out to people who have lost loved ones and I sit at family tables and I hear this.”

A Craft campaign strategist told LEX 18 told us the “empty chair” Craft references symbolically represents the pain families hold, adding it means that someone in the family is struggling with addiction, where lives have been upended.

Dr. Voss said it’s on the audience to interpret the ad the way Craft intended it. While many did infer a member of her family had died, it wasn’t explicit, he said.

“She doesn’t say that,” Voss said, referring to a family member dying. “She says there’s an absent family member, she doesn't say why they're absent.”

Voss said what’s important for voters is that Craft is claiming a special understanding of a policy issue based on her personal resume and that candidates should be backing up what they put on their resume.

Craft has declined to share what member of her family was impacted by addiction.

Asking a candidate about a family member is “fair game” if the candidate brings the family member into the debate and uses them to establish expertise or some sort of understanding of an issue, Voss said.

“It’s hard for election watchers not to demand ‘who is this family member,’ ‘what are you actually saying you experienced with them,’ because really the candidates are trying to put that on their resume for the job,” Voss said, adding it’s natural for candidates to be able to prove what’s on their resume.

Craft opened her remarks at the meet and greet Thursday in London by saying drugs may possibly be the number one problem in the United States, and certainly in Kentucky.

She said a “full court press” is required to tackle the crisis, especially when it comes to engaging with people who interact with young people, like teachers and coaches. Religion and family are at the heart of her plan, she said.

Craft is one of many Republican candidates running in the May primary, hoping to challenge incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear in the general election.

She served as President Trump’s ambassador to Canada and the United Nations.