Democrats have a serious shot at unseating Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) this November when the unpopular conservative firebrand stands for a second term.
Defeating Bevin would stem the right-wing tide in a state with historically heterodox politics and also strike a blow against the GOP in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s backyard.
But first, Democrats have to pick a nominee. And the May 21 primary election, in which three candidates face off, is shaping up to be Kentucky’s version of the simmering national party debate over how Democrats can win in increasingly Republican rural states.
Kentucky Democrats will have to choose among state Attorney General Andy Beshear, a battle-scarred Bevin foe and son of the last Democratic governor; Rocky Adkins, a socially conservative state House leader from Appalachia; and Adam Edelen, a former state auditor-turned-solar energy entrepreneur running as an unabashed progressive.
“This election is a test of whether voter polarization is so great that mobilizing hardcore supporters is more important than winning over the swing voter,” said D. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
A Beshear victory would reinforce what’s already conventional wisdom among Democratic Party power brokers: that a strong resume and a moderate platform are what win elections, particularly in red states. But if Edelen manages to pull a long-odds upset ― both against Beshear and then Bevin ― it could change how party leaders and candidates think about electability in places like Kentucky.
A Right-Wing Governor Overplays His Hand
Kentucky, a predominantly white state that sits at the crossroads of the South, Appalachia and the Midwest, occupies a peculiar place in American politics.
Like much of the country, Kentucky is heavily polarized along rural-urban lines with its rural areas trending more and more Republican. Out of the state’s 120 counties, Hillary Clinton won just two in 2016: those that are home to Louisville and Lexington, the state’s largest cities.
But Kentucky, unlike its Southern neighbors, has a history of labor union activism, rooted in the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky, that has allowed Democrats to maintain a significant, if diminishing, foothold in the state.
Even as Democrats are down to a single seat in Kentucky’s congressional delegation ― Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville ― the attorney general and secretary of state’s offices remain in Democratic hands.
In fact, since World War II, Republicans have won Kentucky’s governorship only three times, although two of the three occasions have been since 2003.
As recently as 2015, Democrat Steve Beshear, the current attorney general’s father, sat in the governor’s mansion. Beshear’s commitment to implementing the Affordable Care Act in the high-poverty state ensured that in the two years immediately following implementation, Kentucky experienced the second-largest decline in uninsured residents of any state.
Notwithstanding Beshear’s accomplishments and enduring popularity, Republicans took back the governorship in 2015 and swept a host of other statewide officials, including then-auditor Edelen, out of office. To win, Bevin positioned himself as a champion of county clerk Kim Davis, whose refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses had turned her into a hero for many social conservatives.
“Kim Davis shows up and Bevin puts his arm around her and all the attempts to make the election about pocketbook issues go out the window,” Voss recalled.
Bevin might actually be vulnerable.
D. Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky professor
Bevin, a now-52-year-old businessman who had unsuccessfully challenged McConnell from the right in the 2014 GOP Senate primary, vowed to pursue a deeply conservative agenda as governor. His top priorities would include undoing the Affordable Care Act, diminishing the power of unions and uprooting the last vestiges of Democratic power in the state.
Initially, Bevin’s agenda was limited by Democrats’ control of the state House of Representatives. Then in 2016, riding Donald Trump’s coattails, Republicans took over the state House for the first time since 1921.
With unified control of the state government, Republicans moved immediately to undercut the unions. The legislature made Kentucky a “right-to-work” state ― that is, unions were barred from requiring the workers they represent to pay dues ― and struck down “prevailing wage” requirements that even the playing field for union firms bidding on public projects.
But a subsequent effort to cut the pensions of public school teachers prompted mass protests at the state Capitol and was ultimately struck down by the state Supreme Court.
Bevin’s plan to impose a work requirement on the state’s Medicaid program, which is projected to boot over 90,000 people from the program, has also stalled in court thus far.
The governor’s trench warfare with unions and attempts to remake Kentucky in the image of its more conservative neighbors has taken a toll on his popularity. As of January, Bevin’s approval rating was underwater ― making him one of the least popular state leaders in the country.
“Bevin might actually be vulnerable,” Voss said. People who voted for the governor in 2015, he added, “wouldn’t necessarily vote for his opponent. They might just stay home.”
‘A Fighter Who Can Get Results’
Andy Beshear, 41, is the candidate most clearly running as the anti-Bevin. The state attorney general has successfully sued Bevin over those proposed changes to state employees’ pensions and has used his bully pulpit to condemn the proposed Medicaid reductions as well.
He is casting himself as a return to normalcy in the state, as someone uniquely equipped to defeat Bevin and reverse his policies because of his own experience in the top law enforcement post.
“I’m a fighter who can get results,” Beshear told HuffPost. “The most important thing is to beat Matt Bevin and I can get that done.”
On paper, Beshear, who was elected to his current office amidst the 2015 GOP wave that swept out Edelen, certainly seems like the surest bet. Thanks to his experience, family name and accomplishments as attorney general, which also include clearing the state’s rape kit backlog, Beshear’s internal polling has him leading both Adkins and Edelen by over 25 percentage points. (There has been no public, independent polling of the primary field.)
We’re losing ground everywhere we turn with the Republican Party.
John Stovall, president of Teamsters Union Local 783
Beshear’s boosters argue that supporting anyone else is a risky proposition, given what is at stake in unseating Bevin.
“We’re losing ground everywhere we turn with the Republican Party,” said John Stovall, president of the Teamsters Union Local 783 in Louisville, which has endorsed Beshear. “He’s the guy who can bring the Democratic Party back.”
Of course, Beshear has some baggage as well. As a private lawyer representing the Boy Scouts of America in 2012, he won the dismissal of two lawsuits from men alleging that their scoutmaster had molested them in the 1970s.
In late March, Beshear said that he was merely fulfilling his duty as an attorney for the Boy Scouts of America and that he would not have represented one of the accused molesters.
Asked by HuffPost if the Beshear campaign had additional comment, campaign manager Eric Hyers said, “That case taught Andy so much and helped motivate his work as attorney general, where he has fought to extend the statute of limitations for survivors, tripled the number of child sex offenders removed from Kentucky communities, created the nation’s first Survivors’ Council and cleared Kentucky’s shameful backlog of untested rape kits.”
‘The First Person Who Really Told Us What He Is For’
Edelen, 41, casts himself not so much as a left-leaning alternative to Beshear as an innovator with a vision for the state that goes beyond undoing Bevin’s handiwork.
Following his 2015 reelection defeat, Edelen joined a friend in spearheading the launch of the state’s first solar power farm on top of two shuttered coal mining sites in Eastern Kentucky.
He describes the project as part of a larger plan to modernize the state’s energy infrastructure, even as he promises to preserve existing coal jobs. To that end, Edelen said he would fight to make it easier for utility companies and rate-payers to adopt renewable energy, something that the state’s coal lobby has fought bitterly.
“We Democrats are afraid to stand up for the notion that we’ve got to make sure that there is a true equality of opportunity ― and to acknowledge that the economy is shifting,” Edelen told HuffPost. “People are ready for this conversation.”
Edelen, a Lexington resident with an impeccable coiffeur whose pronouncements sound less stilted than Beshear’s, is pitching himself as an anti-establishment populist, notwithstanding his urbane demeanor. His television ads emphasize his humble roots as the son of a struggling farmer and pledge not to accept corporate PAC money, a promise that his opponents have yet to make. “Big corporations buy politicians so they can get ahead and you can’t,” he says in one 30-second spot.
In Kentucky, you run on the three ‘Gs’ ― God, guns and gays.
Berry Craig, a historian
Edelen, who has also proposed reforms aimed at curbing the power of state lobbyists, nonetheless stands to benefit from a super PAC founded by a Kentucky Democrat who supports abortion rights. Super PACs involved in Kentucky state elections are legally allowed to receive unlimited sums of money, although they must disclose their donors.
In a state where Democrats typically support coal and oppose abortion rights, Edelen is blazing an uncharted path on environmental and social issues. He speaks out in support of abortion rights and the need to address the state’s persistent racial inequities and identifies climate change as a major threat to the state. “Every farmer and every hunter in Kentucky already knows climate change is real,” he said.
Stances like those won Edelen the backing of the political arm of the state’s largest liberal nonprofit, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The group has 12,000 members, including a sizable presence in Louisville’s predominantly black West End.
“Adam was the first person who really told us what he is for,” rather than what he is against, said Meta Mendel-Reyes, chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
High Risk, High Reward?
In talking to HuffPost, Beshear sought to downplay his ideological differences with Edelen, insisting that what distinguishes him is that he has a record of getting things done. Indeed, on many issues, from repealing anti-union legislation to restoring voting rights for nonviolent former felons, the two contenders are in agreement.
But a closer look at the details reveals real policy differences as well. Beshear told HuffPost he is a consistent supporter of reproductive rights, but in January, he hesitated when asked whether he opposed a “heartbeat bill” in the state legislature that would criminalize abortion just a few weeks into pregnancy.
Likewise, Beshear states on his website that climate change is “real,” but in December 2016, he called on President-elect Trump to quickly overturn President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and declined to state his views on climate change.
And his plans for increasing the use of renewable energy in the state are vague at best. He told HuffPost that he would pursue an “all-in energy policy … that includes as many jobs as we can in renewable and other forms of energy,” but also said that steps toward that goal must be taken “responsibly.”
If Beshear walks a careful line on coal and abortion, Adkins, 59, a former schoolteacher and veteran lawmaker, is close to the Kentucky Democratic Party’s traditional conservatism on those issues. His website does not mention renewable energy and as the state House minority leader, he is a member of the legislature’s Pro-Life Caucus.
Like Beshear, Adkins has framed his candidacy as a response to Bevin’s efforts to roll back health care expansion, neuter unions, cut teacher pensions and reduce public school funding.
“Working families of Kentucky know how I have fought the unfriendly policies of this governor that has driven down wages of hardworking people all across this commonwealth,” he bellowed during a speech to a supportive crowd in Pikesville earlier this month.
In his first TV ad, Adkins promises to be a “governor for the little guy.”
But he also brings to his bid a bit of Appalachian flavor, breaking out his guitar to join bluegrass performances at street fairs and celebrating the “hills and mountains of Eastern Kentucky” in his speeches. He has won the endorsement of several labor unions associated with the region’s extraction industries, including the United Mine Workers of America and a United Steelworkers chapter.
Adkins’ strength in rural areas makes him a potentially promising statewide contender but it “doesn’t seem like he’s gaining traction,” Voss said. Adkins’ campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.
Meanwhile, the blunt support for abortion rights, renewable energy and racial justice policies may not be hobbling Edelen as it would have in earlier elections.
“In Kentucky, you run on the three ‘Gs’ ― God, guns and gays,” said Berry Craig, a Western Kentucky-based historian and union activist who has not endorsed anyone in the primary. “If Adam Edelen is the Democratic nominee, he will get hammered hard on that.”
But Edelen’s campaign has produced internal polling that shows him narrowing the gap with Beshear. Earlier this month, he won a straw poll conducted by the Kentucky Young Democrats.
Last week, the former state auditor scored his biggest coup yet: nabbing the endorsement of the influential union representing teachers in and around Louisville.
Edelen is “picking up momentum,” Voss said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for him among student activists.”
Beating the odds in the primary would give Edelen a chance to test a theory that largely fell flat in the 2018 midterms: that a progressive with an ambitious economic vision capable of both firing up the Democratic Party faithful and converting swing voters can prevail in Republican-held states and districts.
In a low-turnout election, Edelen is betting that an enthusiastic base and a well-oiled field operation can carry him to victory ― first in the May primary and again in November.
“It’s a bold, bold strategy to do this,” Craig said. “He’s going for broke.”