Public and private polling on the eve of Tuesday’s election in Kentucky showed not only Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway with a small lead, but Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen with a commanding 8 to 11 percent lead in his race for re-election.
Conway wound up losing by nearly double-figures, and Edelen — who greatly outraised and outspent his little-known Republican opponent Rep. Mike Harmon — lost by 4 percent, the lowlights of a shockingly poor performance by Kentucky Democrats that nearly swept the party out of every statewide constitutional office.
Edelen — who previously was milling a pivot from re-election to running for U.S. Senate next year against Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — said in an interview with Insider Louisville on Thursday that he was “swept out by a tide that was strongly anti-Democrat,” the likes of which no objective observer saw coming.
“I think the down-ballot races give a pretty good indication of it,” said Edelen. “The two most generic Democrats (in the state treasurer and agricultural commissioner races) got 39 and 40 percent of the vote. The people who were well known names, Alison (Lundergan Grimes) won by 2 percent, Andy (Beshear) won by a tenth of a percent. I think we lost by three. I think that’s pretty much what it was.”
This came as such a shock because everyone’s polling was showing the same thing, Edelen said, but all were very far off the mark.
“I think we’re all trying to figure out why the polling was so off,” said Edelen. “If you consider where Survey USA (who conducted the Bluegrass Poll) had everything, where everyone’s internal polls had it, even the (Republican Governors Association’s) poll had it at a tie four days out, I mean, my God. And then Bevin wins by almost double-digits. It’s extraordinary.
“I saw a poll on Friday that had me up plus-11 percent and trending heavy. I mean, that’s 13 or 14 points off from the result. It’s incredible. I don’t know if it’s modeling or what. In my internal stuff we used a pretty conservative model for it, and it just didn’t work, it was inaccurate.”
But regardless of bad polling or national headwinds affecting the election, Edelen says the Kentucky Democratic Party has to come to grips with the fact that it needs to make major changes in order to stop its obvious decline in political relevance.
“I think the first step for the party in terms of recovering here in Kentucky is to acknowledge that there is a structural problem,” said Edelen. “This wasn’t an aberration. We’ve seen two elections now where the party was wiped out in the east and the west… A lot of it’s Obama. And I think if Jack (Conway) had it to do over again, I think he might have spent a little more time talking about selling a program.”
Asked where this structural problem needs to be fixed — from leadership to campaign strategy to messaging — Edelen said it was “all of the above.”
“When you have a failure that is this widespread, it puts us in a spot,” said Edelen. “And without stepping into the dispute between progressive and conservative Democrats, there is no doubt that the national party is badly out of step with where Kentuckians are, there’s no question. So it’s troubling. There are huge structural forces that are making it far more difficult to run in Kentucky successfully as a Democrat. My guess is the way you combat that is you recognize it’s going to be a fight over the long term. The party has to modernize and reform and make an effort to focus on ideas and a platform and agenda.”
Asked if Conway’s campaign focused too much on Matt Bevin’s tax issues and not enough on policy issues that would differentiate the candidates and motivate the Democratic base, Edelen said that Bevin’s tax liens and refusal to release his tax returns were important, but the campaign would have been better served going beyond that.
“It seemed to me that they could punch that bruise, but also bring up just how radical their policy agenda is, with everything from vouchers to right to work,” said Edelen. “They have a policy agenda that really, in my view, threatens the social construct that has served the state pretty well for a long time. So there was the opportunity to run on those issues.”
Asked if the threat of Bevin repealing Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion — and putting the health coverage of roughly 400,000 Kentuckians at risk — could have been used to boost turnout, Edelen shared an anecdote from a recent meeting of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in which Scott Jennings, a longtime advisor for Sen. Mitch McConnell, said Republicans were betting on those people not voting.
“I remember being in the room when Jennings was asked whether or not Republicans were afraid of the electoral consequences of displacing 400-500,000 people who have insurance,” said Edelen. “And he simply said, ‘People on Medicaid don’t vote.’ … Well, ultimately he was right, and that turned out to be the case. I think there certainly appeared to be a low-turnout strategy on the Democrats’ side, and I don’t think that serves us well at all. Clearly Bevin had the more motivated base.”
And then there is the Obama problem. Despite seven years of Democrats criticizing the president with very low approval ratings in order to boost their electoral chances, that hasn’t stopped Republicans’ successful attempts to morph such candidates into Obama himself. While there is a spilt on the progressive and conservative wings of the party over this approach, Edelen says this is now a largely moot point, and that the president has depleted the Democratic bench of talent, not just in Kentucky, but the rest of rural America.
“What I would say to those who are in leadership of the Democratic Party is that we’ve got to move to a post-Obama approach,” said Edelen. “Love him or hate him, he has all but wiped out the bench in middle America and the South of the Democratic Party. That’s just a fact… I think the debate over whether to embrace Obama or shun him is largely yesterday’s argument… the question is, what’s next?”
Edelen said what’s next for the Democratic Party over the short term is the realization that it is now the opposition party in Kentucky, “and it’s got to do what all effective opposition parties do, which is to offer cooperation when the other side is right, and offer principled opposition when they’re not. And make no mistake, there are going to be big moral issues that are decided in Kentucky, from education to workers’ rights to civil rights. There are going to be some big, big distinctions and some big fights coming. Republicans are clearly on the offensive, and nobody can say they didn’t run on their platform. The people of Kentucky should not be surprised with the policy platform that’s coming, because – much to the Republicans’ credit – they’ve run on it.”
What’s next for Edelen is a return to the private sector, spending more time raising his children and coaching Little League. While saying he will miss doing good work in public office, “what I miss about the private sector is it’s a place where effort affects outcome, which is not always the case in government. But I’m always going to be public spirited, and I’m not ruling out a return.”
Edelen said he’s proud of the work his office accomplished over four years, particularly their audits of public education departments, special taxing districts and the backlog of rape kits held by law enforcement agencies around the state. Receiving widespread bipartisan acclaim for such work that led to major reform, he said the auditor’s office was “the tip of the spear for reform and modernization.” He just wishes that such work and issues hadn’t been swept away in a partisan tidal wave that led to his defeat.
“I regret that the auditor’s race wasn’t big enough to be viewed through that prism rather than through a larger partisan prism,” said Edelen. “But I’ve never operated under the assumption that life is fair. I just tried politics to make it more fair for everybody.”
Edelen has scrapped plans to run against Paul next year, saying it will be tough to find a high-profile credible Democratic candidate to run against the Republican senator next year in the face of this week’s results. However, he did not rule out the possibility that a candidate could be successful against Paul, whom he still said is vulnerable, saying that political winds can just as easily swing back from whence they came.
“I think you could make a strong case that Rand has badly neglected the needs of Kentuckians to serve his own political ambitions… I think that’s a compelling case to be made,” said Edelen. “But it’s not just about candidates, it’s about ideas and vision, and I think that’s where the party needs to get right now. Because just criticizing the opposition without offering something to follow is not going to work, especially for Democrats.”
“What transpired on election night is going to make it more difficult for any candidate, but let’s not forget that these swings tend to be dramatic and they tend to be counterbalanced,” said Edelen. “I remember in 1994 when I was in college working in the lieutenant governor’s office… when the Gingrich takeover of Congress occurred, everybody thought the Democratic Party was dead. Paul Patton was elected, albeit in a very close election, the following year, largely by running against what had happened… I thought Rand Paul was a gadfly six years ago, a weird guy in mock turtlenecks with a famous guy who happened to be a fringe celebrity, and then the next thing you know he’s in the U.S. Senate. So I think I would encourage someone looking at any race to just get at it and make your mark, and the public itself will determine how credible they’ll be. I don’t’ think Rand Paul’s going to beat anybody 60 to 40 next year, I don’t see that happening.”