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A closer look at political ads in Kentucky's GOP primary for governor

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Posted at 10:59 AM, May 09, 2023

This story will be updated every day this week with an analysis of a different political ad. 

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) - With political ads flooding the TV airwaves ahead of the May primary, political experts weigh in on what messages candidates are trying to send and why.

LEX 18 had professors across Kentucky take a closer look at some of the ads in the most contentious race on the ballot: The Republican race for governor.

Our sources:

  • Dr. John Heyrman, Professor of Political Science at Berea College who has researched media and politics.
  • Dr. Anne Cizmar, Professor of Government at Eastern Kentucky University who has researched campaigns and elections.
  • Dr. Wilfred Reilly, Associate Professor of Political Science at HBCU Kentucky State University who writes about politics.

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Kelly Craft: 'Woke'

Political ad check: Kelly Craft

In the ad, Craft claims that our schools are under attack by "woke bureaucrats."

"So that's, at the very least, an exaggeration," said Heyrman. "It's hard to say what's exactly factual there, but I would just say that a lot of people in education would say that it's more like the opposite, that teachers are teaching the way that they think is best, and the legislature is parachuting in to tell them how they can teach."

The imagery stood out to Reilly.

"I think obviously you know, the rainbow parachutes in the beginning, there's obviously a lot of hyperbole that's used in this because it is a political ad; that's very noticeable," said Reilly.

The ad shows people parachuting to school wearing tie-dye shirts and bright hair.

"I think to try to show that they're not from Kentucky and they're coming in and dictating how the classroom should be run for Kentuckians," said Cizmar.

The word "woke" appeared in Craft's ad two times in the less than thirty seconds it played.

"And of course, one of the things is nobody can define it very well, some people have challenged people who use it to define it and they sometimes struggle to do so," said Heyrman.

Reilly says the word "woke" has been used by Democrats and Republicans, especially by African Americans, in political debate for at least 50 years.

"I think 'woke' is a word that is something both parties are being a little dishonest about, right?" said Reilly. "And it's not something that's especially hard to define.”

Cizmar says the target audience plays a factor in why that language was used. She says most primary voters are more liberal in terms of Democratic voters and more conservative in the case of Republican voters.

"Just the very fact that it's called the 'woke agenda,' I think, is meant to appeal to a particular base," said Cizmar. "So, I haven't seen any evidence that folks are really coming in from outside of this state and leading class discussions, making us sing new versions of ABCs that are just- and kind of completely hijacking the education system, and so I would say that it's maybe hyperbolic."

The professors also say Critical Race Theory isn't being taught in elementary schools, as depicted in the ad.

"That struck me because it's been discussed in the media in the last few years that, in fact, nobody in elementary school is going to be reading anything that has CRT on it, I mean it's mostly a graduate concept," said Heyrman.

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Daniel Cameron: 'Only One'

Ad check: Daniel Cameron

In the ad, Cameron claims he is the only candidate to be endorsed by former President Donald Trump, stop abortion in Kentucky, and take on Joe Biden and Andy Beshear in court.

"Well, it's clearly intended to remind people of that central fact about Trump's endorsement, and it's effective at doing that," said Heyrman.

Heyrman says former President Trump's endorsement sends a strong message to his supporters.

"He's the most popular figure in the party, and honestly in my lifetime. You'd have to go, the only competitor I can think of, which can tell you how long my lifetime is, would be Ronald Reagan," he added.

Reilly says the claim that he is the only candidate to stop abortion in Kentucky is not completely false.

"When you talk about a little bit of fish storytelling there, one of the reasons that Cameron did those things is that he's the only person that could do them. I mean, he's the Attorney General in the state," said Reilly. "So, with the possible exception of the Governor, there's really no one else who could have been involved in the Kentucky abortion decision at a leadership level of something like that."

However, Cameron did not single-handedly stop abortion in Kentucky. Attorney General Daniel Cameron's office defended the abortion ban passed by the state legislature in court.

Cizmar says his tactic in this ad was very mainstream.

"'And so, I have these credentials but without straying into some of the buzzwords or dog whistles or sort of terms that invoke a more – I don't want to say fringe, exactly, but kind of a more fringe type of rhetoric. It's a more mainstream message," said Cizmar.

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State Solutions Anti-Beshear Ad

Ad check: Anti-Beshear attack ad

In the ad, political action committee State Solutions, claims Governor Andy Beshear would allow sex changes for children as young as eight and nine years old.

Our experts all disagree.

"I'm pretty sure that Beshear has not expressed a personal opinion on what exact care he thinks should happen. He's simply opposed to passing a law limiting what parents and children and doctors can decide," said Heyrman.

Our reporting on Governor Beshear's views confirms that.

"I think that in terms of honesty, there are some problems there, and there's some problems with this kind of ad in general," said Reilly.

So why did the PAC use this tactic? Heyrman says this is seen a lot in political ads.

"Well, I mean of course you mention this is kind of the classic, identify with things people like, and then show them under threat, right?" explained Heyrman.

Especially targeting an issue that many GOP voters feel strongly about.

"The issue itself is a serious one. A lot of parents are very concerned about the idea that a child might be confused about their gender at a point early in life – and gender again is a vague concept that is different legally and practically from sex," said Reilly.

Reilly also says PAC-funded advertisements have more leverage on what they can say since a candidate's name isn't attached.

The ad labeled Gov. Beshear's views as part of a 'liberal culture war'. However, Heyrman feels that's a twist on reality.

"The phrase 'liberal culture wars' is interesting because again so much of this stuff is so contestable. I mean, obviously, liberals and conservatives have very different opinions on trans issues right now, but something that I think is pretty factually neutral is to say that it is conservatives rather than liberals that have made this a national issue," said Heyrman.

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Craft vs. Cameron Ad

Ad check: Craft vs. Cameron

Experts say the anticipation of a tight GOP primary makes the number of attack ads aired about Daniel Cameron and Kelly Craft unsurprising.

PAC ads aired on behalf of the candidates take digs at Craft for not being endorsed by her former boss Donald Trump and Cameron for being soft on crime.

"Obviously, when you talk about the PACs, they – they're not representatives at least technically of the candidates, so they have a little bit more luxury to sort of throw mud and say sometimes very negative things," said Reilly.

The ad by Commonwealth PAC labeled Cameron a 'soft on crime teddy bear' for being a 'spokesperson' for a woke organization tied to the George Soros-funded ACLU.

Heyrman says there are several factual issues with many of the claims in the ad.

"There's several misleading things in this ad," said Heyrman. "The whole border wall thing is very debatable at least. Most Americans probably don't even know who George Soros is."

Cizmar says it's an example of why it's important to consider the goals of the person who created the ad.

"A lot of things in politics are very delicate issues, there's a lot of different voices that need to be heard. There's a lot of different competing factors," said Cizmar.

The attack ad by Bluegrass Freedom Action claimed Craft was absent from her post half the time and misled Kentuckians in her opioid ad. Craft has denied those claims.

"It's more accurate or less biased or something than perhaps some of the other attack ads we've seen although it is resorting to the same sort of simplistic presentation of information," said Cizmar.

Craft, Cameron and the PACs that are backing them have been airing negative ads against each other for weeks.

The claims made in many of those ads were even brought up on the debate stage.

"That's also a part of the strategy is just to score as many points as you can for your campaign making your side look as good as possible and the others look as bad as possible right in 30 seconds," said Cizmar.

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Ryan Quarles, Alan Keck, Mike Harmon, Eric Deters ads

Ad check: Quarles, Keck, Harmon, Deters

For candidates for governor Ryan Quarles, Alan Keck, and Mike Harmon, the approach to convince Kentuckians to put them in the seat looks different than the front runners.

One of Quarles' ads places him on a farm in Kentucky talking about family values.

In Keck's ad, he highlights his role as mayor and CEO, hoping to show he can get things done.

Harmon stands in front of the Capitol building and highlights the unfinished construction.

Their ads have mainly focused on their plans for office and not on each other, and our political experts from across the state say that's for a reason.

"That's because what they're trying to do is build name recognition, build a brand. Get out of that third or fourth spot," said Reilly.

Cizmar says negative ads are typically used in close races and over the years have become more popular. So what makes their ads stand out is they don't seem to be dwelling on their competition.

"I do think that strategy perhaps is not as effective as it once was," said Cizmar. "We saw in the presidential primaries for example, you had a couple candidates hang around for a long time with the goal of perhaps wearing down the nasty discussion and becoming the good guy, and that sort of good guy lane, and that never really played out."

Then there's candidate for governor Eric Deters. He's stuck mostly to YouTube rather than TV ads, and perhaps his most interesting production doesn't fit the ad structure at all.

"I think the very decision to use a cemetery, right, is meant to invoke some kind of death and destruction type of imagery and so it's an odd place to film an ad or to film some kind of campaign-related video," said Cizmar.

The imagery of the cemetery with headstones filled with names of his opponents reminded Reilly of a song from Chicago rapper King Vonn.

"Mitch McConnell got tired of Kentucky and moved to the Galapagos Islands to live with the turtles," laughed Reilly, referencing a line from the video. "Thought the ad was very funny. It's doing well on YouTube."

Reilly estimates television ads cost tens of thousands of dollars and suggests the price tag might have influenced the campaign's choice.

As experts in campaigns in elections, it is easier for them to wave through the noise. For the typical viewer, Cizmar suggests remembering the goal of the person behind the ad.

"They're designing this ad to make you have a particular reaction, and so just being mindful of that, that they're trying to poke something or prime something in you and so not to fall for the bait," said Cizmar.