Democratic candidates for governor Adam Edelen, Rocky Adkins and Andy Beshear (left to right) faced off in their first televised debate | Screenshot via WLEX telecast

By Perry Bacon Jr.

The three leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor, former State Auditor Adam Edelen, Attorney General Andy Beshear and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, are politically different in some meaningful ways. But those differences are fairly subtle.

It’s important to emphasize that they have very similar views on most of the big issues: all of them would run the state’s Medicaid program like former Gov. Steve Beshear, eschewing the work requirements Gov. Matt Bevin is trying to implement; all three have cast themselves as defenders of public schools and teachers; all three have somewhat vague ideas for fixing the state’s pension system. None of these three are aligned with more liberal figures of the national Democratic Party like congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Also, it’s worth noting that any Democrat elected governor will have fairly limited power to do much of anything. Not only do Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, allowing them to block the ideas of a Democratic governor, but the legislature can override a governor’s veto with majority votes in each chamber. So much of what these candidates are talking about on the campaign trail is basically already dead — unless Democrats make gains in the state legislature.

But there are at least four distinctions between the candidates that are worth understanding and unpacking. Here they are (ordered alphabetically):

Abortion

Adkins describes himself as “pro-life” and has voted for legislation intended to limit abortions. Beshear and Edelen are abortion rights supporters. It should be noted that Republicans in the legislature will still be able to adopt anti-abortion bills if Beshear or Edelen is elected — by overriding their vetoes. That said, the Bevin administration has, outside of the legislative process, used its executive power in a number of ways to limit abortions in the state. Beshear and Edelen would almost certainly break with Bevin’s approach. It’s not clear that Adkins would.

Coalition-building

Adkins, because he has long represented a statehouse district in rural Eastern Kentucky, is perhaps the best-positioned of this trio to run a general election campaign targeting rural voters and those who voted for Trump in 2016 but might consider backing a more conservative Democrat in a state-level race. The commercial being run across the state by Adkins’ campaign, with he and a group of older white men with their guitars playing bluegrass music, plays into this image.

Beshear and Edelen are both more urban/suburban Democrats, closer to the party’s brand nationally. But Edelen is presenting himself as a more progressive, “woke” Democrat in a way that Beshear is not. Edelen is emphasizing that he has a “progressive vision” for the state, understands “white privilege” and is an “unapologetic supporter” of abortion rights. He has proposed decriminalizing personal use of marijuana and has said that policing and jailing people who use the drug in small amounts has effects that are “terribly racist.” He was the only one of the three candidates to attend a gubernatorial forum earlier this month at Simmons College, the historically black school in West Louisville run by Kevin Cosby, is one of the most influential African-American figures in the city. He talks constantly about his work on a solar energy project in Eastern Kentucky.

Beshear has run a more generic Democratic campaign — not really leaning into cultural conservatism like Adkins or presenting himself as a progressive.

It’s not clear that Edelen would govern in a more progressive way than Beshear, who has pursued Democratic priorities like defending abortion rights as attorney general.

But Edelen’s presentation as the progressive candidate in this primary race locks him into a certain kind of general election strategy — appealing to voters in the cities around the state (Louisville and Lexington for sure, but also smaller ones like Paducah) and perhaps having limited appeal for say, voters who might be more liberal on economic issues but strongly oppose abortion.

Why does this matter? Not necessarily because of “electability.” Each campaign claims that they are the best-positioned to defeat Bevin in the general election, but it’s just hard to predict how the general election will go. (Kentucky politics have shifted from being fairly Democratic at the state level to very Republican in less than a decade. Also, Donald Trump was elected president — so the ability to project which candidates can win is not always certain.)

The coalition matters because of how it will set up the Democrats for 2020. As noted, a Democrat elected in 2019 will have fairly limited powers as long as the legislature is dominated by the GOP. So a big part of a Democratic governor’s role would be on the campaign trail, trying to help elect more Democrats to the statehouse.

An Edelen-led Kentucky Democratic Party would, of course, try to win across the state, but it probably would be more focused on voters in the state’s cities, those with college degrees and minorities. An Adkins-led party would likely be more focused (compared to one led by Edelen) on the state’s rural areas and voters who might be more conservative on issues like abortion and not be college graduates. Expect a Beshear-led party to be something of a mix of these approaches.

Democratic Party values

Democrats, at the national level, are increasingly wary of political machines and political dynasties and candidates backed by super-PACs. They are strongly supportive of abortion rights and say that politicians should release their tax returns so the public knows if they are enriching themselves through their elected offices.

In this primary, Kentucky Democrats will have to reject one of those values. Beshear’s father was governor less than four years ago. Adkins is anti-abortion. Edelen’s running mate, Gill Holland, won’t release his tax returns and the Edelen-Holland ticket is being helped by a super-PAC that is primarily funded by one person ( Christy Brown, Holland’s mother-in law.) 

Democrats in Kentucky will have to decide which of these qualities about the candidates annoy them least. The party will have trouble attacking Bevin for his refusal to release his returns if Edelen is the candidate. A Beshear nomination introduces a Beshear family vs. Bevin dynamic that may complicate the attorney general’s chances. Some in the party view abortion rights as fundamental — and therefore may be less enthused about working hard to elect Adkins.

Image

The “soft power” of a governor (so outside of his or formal authority) can be used to say, help woo big companies to states or to emphasize certain issues or priorities. For example, Steve Beshear didn’t just implement the Affordable Care Act here — he became a huge champion of the law nationally. Most Republican governors are generally supportive of Trump — but Bevin has enthusiastically embraced the administration and cast himself as one of its biggest allies at the state level.

If any of these Democrats become governor, it will be interesting to see how they define the state’s image. You can already imagine the New York Times profile of Edelen-Holland if they are the general election candidates — the charismatic, 44-year-old who loves talking about solar power, with a running mate who spends his time revitalizing neighborhoods. (Holland has been heavily involved in efforts to bring more businesses to “NuLu” and Portland.) Some in Kentucky, particularly Louisville residents, want the state to be viewed as a national player — a home for Amazon’s second headquartersfor example. Edelen and Holland seem like the ticket that would be best well-positioned to portray Kentucky as both urban and urbane. But others in the state, particularly outside of Louisville, may not particularly be focused on that as a goal.

If he were elected governor, Adkins, with his drawl, regular references to his days playing college basketball and residence in coal country, would be seen like Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards or West Virginia U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin — perhaps the only kind of Democrat that can be elected in Southern states dominated by Republicans.

Beshear is fairly young (41), so he, like Edelen, would probably be a future vice presidential or presidential prospect if he wins this year and is re-elected in 2023. At the same time, he is unlikely to be viewed as a particularly forward-looking figure. Not only was Beshear’s father the governor, but many Democrats nationally are excited about where the party has moved in the last two years — from Steve Beshear giving the Democratic response to a nationally televised address by Donald Trump in 2017 to that role going to Georgia’s Stacey Abrams earlier this year.

Perry Bacon is a national political writer who is based in Louisville. You can contact him at [email protected].

This post has been updated to correct the author’s email address.