Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel comes to Kentucky to look at the Democratic primary on May 21 and the three Democrats waiting to take on GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. If the argument is "white guys can win against extremely unpopular Republicans in Trump Country" then there's no better test case.
There's an even better test case because all three Democrats are running on different platforms: State House minority leader Rocky Adkins is a pro-life conservative who's won consistently, AG Andy Beshear is a moderate who has kept his office but lost in 2015 to Bevin by double-digits, and businessman Adam Edelen is a liberal who wants to bring in new industries and jobs.
Bevin, whose years-long battles with teachers and public-sector unions has made him wildly unpopular, is seen as vulnerable despite his party's political dominance in the state. He has been tied up in court over an attempt to add work requirements for Medicaid recipients and over bipartisan efforts to ban abortion; he earned the wrong kind of national attention after speculatingthat a teacher's strike led to a child's death. He's facing a primary challenge from Robert Goforth, a state legislator who says Bevin has squandered his opportunities; at the same time, he has presided over Republican gains that replaced a Democratic state House with a GOP supermajority.
“I have never led in any poll or been popular in any survey that has ever been done,” he said this year, after one survey pegged him as the least-popular governor in America. "Polls, schmolls."
Kentucky Democrats held onto power longer than their counterparts in any other Southern state and are eager to prove that the party can win again in "Trump Country." But they're hurtling toward a May 21 gubernatorial primary with three very different theories of recovery. Adkins, who has held onto a rural Appalachian district amid a Democratic wipeout, is antiabortion and says he could compete for social conservatives. Beshear, whose father was a popular two-term governor, talks about stopping Bevin's biggest excesses in court and getting the state back to balance.
And Edelen, who blames the “quiet, tired pablum of the past” for his party's decline, argues that Bevin can be beaten by a new economic agenda of renewable energy, rural broadband and decriminalized marijuana — not giving up on rural Kentucky, but boosting turnout in suburbs that have turned on the modern GOP. To push back against the idea that the governor's unpopularity will sink him, Edelen invokes the double whammy of 2015 and 2016, two elections that his party thought were impossible to lose, until they lost them.
“Matt Bevin was an early predictor of Donald Trump in both form and fashion, and the campaign we ran against him clearly sought to disqualify him,” Edelen said in an interview. “It was: 'Oh, this guy is crazy! He can't be governor! He's too radical.' And the people of Kentucky listened to his message and delivered him a victory in a landslide, which is what happened again nationally in 2016.”
Every candidate's case against Bevin starts with the teachers. A year ago, with Republicans in full control of the legislative agenda, Bevin replaced teachers's pension plans with less-generous investment portfolios, then vetoed a budget that would have raised education spending. After protests, a bipartisan coalition overrode the veto; after a lawsuit, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned the pension plan. Adkins and Beshear, who battled Bevin from different parts of the capitol, have made those victories the centerpieces of their campaigns.
“There's no place to hide on that House floor,” Adkins told supporters at a Saturday night rally in his hometown. “You go toe to toe with the governor.” In an interview, and everywhere he goes, Beshear recalls just how badly Bevin lost the pensions fight: “We took him to court and we beat him, seven to nothing.”
Bevin's reelection argument rhymes with the one the president is planning for 2020. He's right, the left is wrong, and the state's booming economy can prove it. In Bevin's first TV ad, the first image of the governor is from a meeting with Trump. (The president even tapped Bevin's pollster for his 2016 campaign.)
If Democrats can win here in KY and beat Bevin, there's an argument to be made that they can win nationally. The problem is I don't think they can with any of the three candidates, because they'll all be buried as fascist Socialist enemies of the state and I don't think any of the three of them know how to fight back without coming across at petulant kids.
There's also the problem that Kentucky has far fewer black voters than the national average. Unlike Southern states, there's not a big bloc of black voters here that can help the Dems. Like it or not, Kentucky isn't California. These are the candidates we have, and I'm tired of blue states giving us up for dead all the time.
Polling shows the primary is Beshear's to lose. We'll see in a week and change.