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Abortion, drug trafficking discussed at Kentucky GOP debate

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles makes his opening statement during the Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary debate in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool)
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Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles makes his opening statement during the Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary debate in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool)

Four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls have squared off in a debate coming less than a month before Kentucky's primary election. The debate took place Wednesday on Kentucky Sports Radio.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kelly Craft pressed for the death penalty for drug traffickers connected to fatal overdoses in Kentucky, while rival Ryan Quarles defended the state's abortion ban during a free-wheeling GOP primary debate Wednesday on a popular sports radio program.

Craft, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Donald Trump's presidency, continued her tough talk on combating illegal drugs flowing into the Bluegrass State, blaming it on the nation's “wide open” Southern border. Quarles, the state agriculture commissioner, didn't budge from Kentucky's current abortion law, which includes prohibiting abortions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

They joined two other GOP gubernatorial candidates — state Auditor Mike Harmon and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck — for the debate on Kentucky Sports Radio, coming less than a month before the May 16 primary. State Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a leading candidate in the GOP contest, did not participate in the debate. Craft skipped two earlier debates that Cameron attended.

Twelve candidates in all are competing for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. The Kentucky campaign is drawing national attention to see if Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear can win reelection to a second term despite his party’s struggles in the GOP-trending state. Beshear, who led the state's response to devastating tornadoes and flooding and oversaw a string of economic development successes, has received consistently high voter approval ratings.

At Wednesday's debate, the participating candidates offered contrasting answers when asked for a policy that could immediately help Kentucky the most. Quarles pointed to public safety in a response focused on Louisville. The state's largest city has been plagued by gun violence, including the deaths of five people at a downtown bank last week when a man opened fire with an assault-style rifle.

“We have a great city in Louisville,” Quarles said. “When Louisville is safe and secure, Kentucky is safe and secure.”

Harmon selected school choice as his preference while voicing support for public money going to private schools. Keck listed welfare reform, saying the state needs a system “where we take care of the working poor instead of those who are unwilling to work.” Craft pointed to removing a “woke” agenda from public schools, continuing another of her campaign themes.

Craft said she has met with teachers who “are not happy at all about being told what to teach.”

She also staked out her position on what she sees as an appropriate punishment for those found responsible for drug-related deaths in Kentucky.

“If someone takes the life of a Kentuckian by supplying them with illegal drugs, it is the death penalty," she said. "And we have to have a full-court press on this.”

Craft was pressed about what a governor can do to stem the flow of illegal drugs into a state. The former diplomat said she would have an “open line of communications" to track drug cartels or major traffickers suspected of operating in neighboring states.

Craft has vowed to combat illegal drugs in a state plagued by fatal drug overdoses, many linked to fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid. She said it's a widespread concern among Kentuckians.

"They are so concerned that drugs are taking the lives of their loved ones, or their loved ones are missing," she said. “This is in every corner of our state.”

Quarles was pressed on details about the state’s strict abortion law, which is under review in the courts. When asked for his stance on adding exceptions to the state’s near-total abortion ban, he replied: “I value all life.” Quarles added that he met someone who was born as the result of rape.

“I value that person’s life just as much as anyone else," he said. "I know this is a touchy issue.”

Quarles called for the state to fix what he called a “broken” adoption and foster care system, saying that thousands of children are “without a forever home.”

Opposition to abortion has been a constant theme among GOP candidates for governor.

Meanwhile, the full impact of Craft's family wealth was on display in her latest campaign finance report, which shows she loaned herself more than $7 million to back her bid for governor. Craft has had a constant presence on TV with a series of campaign ads.

Quarles' report showed his campaign, which has focused on building grassroots networks, had more than $900,000 in the bank for the stretch run to the primary election. Cameron had nearly $600,000 on hand, his report showed. Beshear has raised $6.6 million so far for his reelection bid and had $5.9 million in the bank in preparation for the fall campaign, his campaign said.