A look at Kentucky’s political landscape

Published 6:03 am Monday, May 6, 2019

By Al Cross

By Al Cross

Contributing Columnist

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This column continues our longstanding tradition of giving folks who are in Kentucky for the big race, and those looking at Kentucky news media online, a snapshot of our current political landscape.

We’re in the middle of a race for the Democratic nomination for governor. It’s our first contested Democratic primary for the office since 2007, an indicator of how the party’s fortunes have fallen in Kentucky over the last decade or so. But barring a historic upset by Republican state Rep. Robert Goforth, the Democratic nominee gets to run against America’s most unpopular governor in his own state: Republican Matt Bevin.

The major Democrats are Attorney General Andy Beshear, the front-runner by virtue of his office and its battles with Bevin, and by being the son of Steve Beshear, governor in 2007-15; former state auditor Adam Edelen, the biggest threat by virtue of the money put into the race by his running mate for lieutenant governor, filmmaker Gill Holland, and his bourbon-making in-laws; and state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, a homespun throwback to the sort of Democrats who made Kentucky a Democratic state in the mid-20th century: moderate and anti-abortion, with rural roots.

Kentucky is now a mainly urban state, and it remains to be seen how Adkins’ rural approach will play. In his introductory TV ad, he strummed a guitar and talked about plowing with mules, playing college basketball, surviving cancer, losing his job, starting a business and taking on Bevin: “I fought for your health care and our public schools… . He’s not one of us.” A bit raw, but anti-Bevin Republicans like him; his odds are better in fall than spring.

Edelen talks less about Bevin and says he’s running to “create a modern Kentucky” that largely forsakes coal for renewable energy, adopts medical marijuana and stops arresting people for having less than half an ounce of illegal weed. He’s more progressive than any recent statewide candidate but could win a lightly voted primary, especially with his financial edge.

Beshear talks the most about Bevin, whom he has defeated in court more than once, most notably getting a 7-0 state Supreme Court ruling against a hurriedly passed bill to reform pensions, by some measures the nation’s worst-funded. And he’s the most centrist candidate, with all the usual assets of a favorite, but often fails to inspire confidence and lacks a strong following.

That being said, Bevin has made himself vulnerable with his reckless mouth, most famously claiming without evidence that a teacher sickout caused students left alone to suffer sexual assault and other perils. He held his tongue for months, but made a similar remark recently; he’s often in the mood to tell off critics or inquiring journalists.

The best thing Bevin has going for him, other than a good economy in most of the state, is his alliance with President Trump, with whom he shares some behavioral characteristics. A steady stream of Trump administration officials have come to Kentucky recently, including Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump will surely come to a state where he remains popular.

You might ask: Why is Kentucky, which voted for Bill Clinton twice — the second time after he tried to regulate nicotine as a drug — such a Trumpian state?

Well, we’ve been voting Republican for president since 1956 unless a Southerner led the ticket, and Jimmy Carter fell short the second time, after the Republican Party took an anti-abortion stance. Al Gore’s vice presidency confirmed that he was a creature of Washington, not Tennessee, and Kentuckians saw that more clearly than most.

Social issues (a plus for Republicans) and identity politics (a negative for Democrats) became more important, and economics less so – as auto manufacturing boomed in the state, and small tobacco farms faded after McConnell persuaded farmers to give up the federal tobacco program in 2004.

Then came Barack Obama, who pretty much ignored Kentucky and pretty much declared war on coal, a controversial product that turned out to have a constituency beyond our two coalfields. Race was a factor, too: in the 2008 primary exit polls, about 15 percent of voters said it was a factor in their choice of Obama or Hillary Clinton, and Kentucky is only 7.5 percent black.

We’re also not widely settled by immigrants, which made us a fertile field for Trump’s campaign. Many of our voters don’t know a person of color, and lack of familiarity breeds fear, a Trump specialty.

Bevin and Trump both want to make able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries work, but a federal judge in Washington has twice blocked their plan. Look for Bevin to make that an issue in the fall, in what could well be the nation’s most interesting election.

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. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.