The race for governor of Kentucky is occasionally a harbinger of the contest that begins or ends the four-year election cycle, the race for president. In 1995, Democrat Paul Patton defeated Republican Larry Forgy, who had hoped to ride the GOP wave of 1994 but got caught in the undertow, and Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996.
This year, Democrats see the possible ouster of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin as a precursor to the defeat of President Donald Trump. The president is unlikely to lose Kentucky next year, but the red-state defeat of a Republican governor who has some Trump-like qualities would be a welcome signal for Democrats nationwide.
But first, Kentucky Democrats must pick who will face Bevin, and they have some clear choices Tuesday.
State House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, Attorney General Andy Beshear and former state auditor Adam Edelen are three different types of Democrats, whose nomination and/or election would send different signals to the nation.
In national terms, Adkins is a throwback to the days when the Democratic Party was competitive in most rural areas and had numerous elected officials who opposed abortion-related realities that have been obscured in this race.
Adkins, from the tiny Eastern Coalfield town of Sandy Hook, is appealing to his fellow ruralites, who have increasingly been voting Republican. But he talks about abortion only when asked about it, and sometimes has difficulty doing that – even though he voted for three of the four anti-abortion bills that passed the legislature this year.
With the legislature’s help, Bevin has made himself one of the most anti-abortion governors in America, and he surely plans to make major use of that, especially in the communication channels (social media, churches and religious networks) that reach the many voters for whom abortion is the main issue.
If Democrats nominate Adkins, Bevin probably wouldn’t lose many of those voters, because the governor is so socially conservative across the board. The effect would be among the more numerous voters, many of them rural, for whom abortion is only one factor. And Adkins is the only Democrat with appeal to the many anti-Bevin Republicans who will cast protest votes in the nominal GOP primary.
But some wonder if the sort of Democrats Adkins needs to win the nomination are interested in voting in Democratic primaries anymore. Changing party registration in Kentucky isn’t convenient, so the state has many registered Democrats who no longer identify as Democrats.
Also, an Adkins nomination could hurt Democrats’ ability to raise national money for the race, and it might keep some Democrats at home in the general election. But most of those liberals and progressives (and pro-choice women?) would probably hold their nose and vote for Adkins, if only to get rid of Bevin.
At the other end of the spectrum is Edelen, who says he’s running as the candidate of the future, not the past. He most in tune with the liberals and progressives who have defined the national Democratic Party in recent years. They are concentrated in urban areas that vote at higher rates, and if Edelen wins the low-turnout primary it could redefine the Kentucky party, at least temporarily.
As nominee, Edelen would probably be best suited to compete with Bevin and the Republicans on money. His lieutenant-governor candidate, Gill Holland, has loaned about $2.5 million to their slate, and Holland’s mother-in-law, Christy Brown, has put $1 million into a “super” political action committee running its own campaign.
The PAC has spent much of its money on ads attacking Beshear, the most recent saying that as a private attorney, “Beshear got the case of a Boy Scout leader accused of abuse thrown out on a technicality. . . . The judge was appointed by Beshear’s father.”
The ad crossed the line, as the Edelen campaign said in calling for it to be taken down, which the PAC did.
The campaign didn’t say how it crossed the line, but the most egregious part was its implication that the judge ruled politically. There’s no basis for that; the “technicality” was a statute of limitations.
The ad looked like a last-gasp move to defeat Beshear, who has been the front-runner from the start and is still acting like it. His latest ad is all about Bevin and health care – effectively the first Democratic ad of the general election.
A Beshear nomination would be in many ways a vote for the status quo ante – before Bevin, when the attorney general’s father, Steve Beshear, was governor for two terms. But it would also continue the political and legal war Andy Beshear and the governor have fought for three years.
Voters might ask themselves, “Who am I more tired of? Bevin or the Beshears?” Bevin’s answer will be to embrace Trump. Perhaps the Beshears would embrace Joe Biden.
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.