If Adam Edelen’s gutsy strategy in today’s primary pays off, it could signal the end of an era and the sign of even more partisan unity. To explain why, let’s first look at the candidates.
Adkins is a man out of time. He was first elected to the Kentucky State House in 1986, to a district in rural coal country, back when you could slap a (D) next to any name you wanted and they would win. That’s not a dig — he obviously had to make it through the primary, and he seems legitimately popular in his home county of Elliott. But he’s only had one election since 1994, and to watch his campaign, it you’d be forgiven for thinking he still thought Bill Clinton was president. He’s spent the last few months trawling through rural Kentucky at fairgrounds and festivals, playing guitar in a bluegrass ensemble as he promotes his campaign.
He’s a committed social conservative who proudly opposes abortion, to the point where when confronted he wouldn’t even say if there was any bill to limit abortion at all he’d veto. He is a strong backer of charter schools and “Tough on Crime” mass incarceration policies. He’s fiercely pro-coal, cutting sweetheart deals with the industry and opposing the environmental movement to the point where he recently said this to a coal executive who decide to switch a plant to cleaner natural gas
“Have you lost your mind? You cannot wave the white flag and let the environmentalists and regulators declare victory here in the heart of coal country.”
He represents the Democratic Party of his house district well, a district where likely a majority of Democrats voted for Trump, and a sizable amount voted for McConnell and Bevin as well. In short, he’s a caricature of coal country Democrats, right down to his bluegrass infused ads. I don’t mean that as an accusation — I think he’s legitimately the person he portrays himself as. But he is distinctly a particular kind of candidate for a particular kind of voter
It’s impossible to talk about Andy Beshear without talking about Steve Beshear first. Steve Beshear was governor of Kentucky from 2007–2015 and is just a much a portal to the past as Adkins. Beshear’s political career dates back to the 70s, and entered a period of dormancy in 1996, after he narrowly lost that year’s Senate election. When he returned to politics in 2007 to run for governor, he stood in contrast to a changing party which was even then attempting to straddle the line between the more conservative and rural party of the past and the ascendant progressive and urban wing.
In 2007, Kentucky Democrats were experiencing clear signs of decline. Despite a good few cycles for the party nationally, in the state had gone Republican by 15% and 20% in the last presidential elections, they’d recently lost the State Senate, which they’d held since the Civil War, and were atrophying in the State House. Worst of all, a Republican was governor for the first time in decades. Beshear was the right man for the moment, mostly liberal enough to be broadly popular for the party, but who was best known for his political activities in the 80s and still had the temperament and affect to match. He not only achieved landslide victories in 2007 and 2011, but oversaw the last period of Democratic success in Kentucky, and left office enormously popular.
Andy Beshear is not his father, but he’s in the position of having a name that precedes him. He’s more clean cut, has less of that distinctive Appalachian drawl, and he doesn’t have that same easy good ol’ boy personability that his father has. But man, if that name isn’t worth something. His father was the only legitimately popular politician in Kentucky in decades, and while Andy probably ran a good campaign in 2015, it was his first campaign and it’s hard to argue that he would have nearly led the ticket as he did if he had a different last name. Since then, Andy has mostly distinguished himself for getting into fights with Matt Bevin. He’s sued and sued the administration, and refused to defend it against lawsuits. He’s spent four years in a bitter feud with Matt Bevin, and quite clearly has been planning this run for a long time.
If Adkins represents the past of the Kentucky Democrats, and Beshear a link from the past to the present, then Adam Edelen is the modern, urban, progressive base of the party of future. And, as Edelen hopes, today as well. Edelen has spent his entire career in politics, one way or another. Straight out of college, he worked as an aide of Democratic Governor Paul Patton. After that, he ran for Lexington Council (which he lost), and joined the administration of the next Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, as chief of staff. He’s best known for his 2011–2015 tenure as State Auditor, where he lead several high-profile investigations into government corruption.
But it was during his Auditor tenure that Edelen began to alienate voters in conservative Kentucky. He backed gay marriage in 2013, becoming one of the first high-profile Democrats in Kentucky to do so. He refused to investigate Planned Parenthood after a misleading video hit series promoted wild conspiracy theories about them. And then in 2015, he lost reelection. Since then, he’s been working in green energy in Eastern Kentucky. Sure he’ll quote the bible and hasn’t totally lost his drawl, but for the most part the Sierra Club endorsed candidate cuts exactly the kind of figure most politicians will tell you to avoid in conservative and coal-loving Kentucky.
Young is a left-wing perennial candidate who’ll get like 2% of the vote.
The race began with Andy Beshear as the clear leader of the field, Rocky Adkins as the dark horse, and Adam Edelen as the odd man out. Beshear had the name recognition and institutional support, and all he needed to do was hang on to it. Really, it seems like that’s all he’s attempted to do, as he’s consistently avoided standing out from the field or going negative on his primary opponents. He’s been running against Bevin far more than Adkins or Edelen. This is a fairly typical strategy for someone starting out with a huge lead. Adkins’s strategy is also fairly typical. Traditional, even. He’s taken the old-school approach of showing up to small towns and making a personal pitch with the folksiness cranked up to 11.
Edelen’s campaign is what makes this race interesting. Take a moment to imagine you’re in his shoes before the campaign begins. Beshear looks like he has this locked up, with an outside chance of Adkins tying together conservative enough rural voters who have mostly stopped voting for the party in general elections but haven’t changed their registration yet. How do you deal with that? Well, obviously, you need to take down Beshear. Edelen has access to a lot of money through his lieutenant governor candidate, successful clean energy businessman, so he can go on the attack, but first he needs a reason for voters to choose him if they leave Beshear.
So what to do? Edelen made the decision to lean into his liberal image and make himself out to be the only real progressive in the race. He ran ads promising to deliver green energy jobs to the state. He promised big, bold solutions and touted national progressive issues like criminal justice reform and universal pre-k. He’s also made his case to more traditional urban and liberal groups, especially in Louisville. What that let him do was assemble a base and set himself up as a normal Democrat in the national sense. And that, in effect, makes him something of a radical in Kentucky. The limited polling from early in the year shows that this paid off for Edelen, pulling himself from single digits to the teens while his competitors have failed to expand beyond their initial name recognition.
Stage two came next. He’s turned his cannons on Beshear, attacking him for three main reasons. One is taking large sums of money from opioid manufacturers. This claim is dubious, since the actual path of that money was manufactures → Democratic Attorneys General Association → Beshear. The second is for, as a private attorney, getting paid to get Boy Scout leaders accused of sexually assaulting children off on a technicality. This one is indisputable, although a morally thorny issue to be weaponizing in a campaign. The final is that Beshear’s top aide was convicted of corruption. Again, true, but more of a vague intimation than an actual accusation of Beshear.
You may be noticing that Edelen’s tactic only works if voters leave Beshear and choose him over Adkins. That’s what makes it so interesting. Edelen represents a fairly typical national Democrat, and Adkins represents a fairly typical Kentuckian. Edelen is betting that politically, party affiliation says a lot more about voter preference than anything else does, so given the choice between him and Adkins, Democrats will take the guy acting more like other well known Democrats (him) than a local figure (Adkins).
Will it work?
The Democratic Party of Kentucky has been shedding its conservative wing for a long time now. Let’s compare two primaries, 2000 and 2016, and let’s identify areas where we’d expect the voters to more resemble Democrats outside of Kentucky. I chose the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Lexington metros, as well as three counties with large college populations: Warren, Madison, and Calloway.
In 2000, these places had a vote share to roughly match their populations. By 2016, they had grown significantly as a proportion of the electorate, due to conservative fall off. And the trend has only accelerated since then. While Democratic voter registration in these counties has grown by 2.9% since the presidential election, it’s fallen by 1.3% in the rest of the state and they’ve gone from containing 34.3% of the state’s Democrats to 35.3%. Of course there aren’t neat ideological buckets which are determined by geography, and thus 35.3% of Democrats are progressive now, but it does mean the share of rural conservatives in the party is dropping, and eventually there will come an inflection point where they’re not enough of the Democratic Party in the state to get someone like Adkins through a primary.
Edelen is betting that inflection point has been hit, and he might be right. I honestly don’t know if he is. This race provides us with an unusual opportunity to see the contours in the makeup of Kentucky Democrats as they’re in the process of moving more in line with the national party.
The party infrastructure also reflects this divide. Adkins has picked up a variety of non-metro union endorsements in the primary, with only one small union in Louisville. His crown jewel is the United Mineworks, an organization which used to be a prime vote-mover in the Democratic Primary, but as coal has declined, so has its relevance. Beshear is has gotten endorsements mostly Teamsters for some reason, and Edelen has picked up Louisville endorsements, including the sought after Jefferson County Teachers Association, who demonstrated an incredible mobilization ability during the 2017–2018 strikes. Louisville’s major newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, has endorsed Edelen, and they appear to be the only major paper in the state ready to make an endorsement.
I apologize for neglecting Beshear in all of this, but he’s playing it straight and safe to the point where there isn’t much to say about his campaign, even though he’s still the favorite to win. However, he’s not nearly the favorite he was even last month. After allowing Edelen’s attacks to go unanswered for weeks on end, Beshear went up with ads defending himself last week, around the same time rumors of polls showing a nearly 3 way tie began to circulate.
It’s rare that party voters are so clearly asked what direction they want the party to go in. If Adkins or Beshear wins, they’ll have done so using obvious, traditional routes open to them. Edelen’s win would be something that hadn’t been possible until now, and the sheer viability of a winning path like that would signal as the death blow to the distinctiveness of Kentucky’s particular Democratic Party.
Or maybe I’m overselling it a little and it’s actually about money in politics or whatever, and particular events are less important than they seem at the time. But it’s still really interesting what Edelen’s doing — it wouldn’t be possible in a state where presidential and state level politics mostly match, and I want to see how it pans out.