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Picture a diverse field of Democrats with different visions for the future, whose competing agendas focus on building an economy for the 21st century and restoring political civility. Then factor in a primary electorate that’s just hoping to pick a nominee who can beat the unpopular Republican executive in office.
No, this isn’t the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Welcome to Kentucky, where Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary features three Democrats — former state auditor Adam Edelen, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, and Attorney General Andy Beshear — vying to take on Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in November. Bevin is facing a primary challenge, but is expected to win easily.
The primaries are the first major statewide elections since the 2018 midterms. The results will offer hints about how voters on both sides of the aisle are thinking ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and could provide a mini-blueprint for other Democrats figuring out how to appeal to Trump supporters in historically blue areas.
In Kentucky, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 49 to 41 percent, but the state has taken a sharp right turn in recent years. Kentucky voted for President Donald Trump by 30 points in 2016, and 56 percent of Kentuckians view his presidency as favorable, according to a poll taken last month.
But Democrats are still hoping a strong gubernatorial nominee has a shot to beat Bevin, whose tenure has been fraught with controversy, from his anti-vaccine views — he told a Kentucky radio show “the federal government should not be forcing [vaccines] upon people” — to an unpopular pension plan that would revamp the state’s safety net.
Public school education is one of the biggest issues in the primary, and helps explain Bevin’s potential vulnerability in the general election. The former tea party star was caught in the middle of a battle with Kentucky public school teachers last year over proposed budget and pension cuts, resulting in days of protests. Bevin reportedly later blamed a child’s death on the picketing teachers, arguing the child would not have died if school was open.
Beshear has seized on anti-Bevin sentiment in the state, while trying to channel the momentum of the teacher strikes. He chose a public school principal and community activist as his running mate, and his campaign has highlighted the numerous lawsuits has Beshear brought against the Bevin administration as attorney general.
Beshear also benefits from his famous family name: his father, Steve Beshear is a popular former Democratic governor of Kentucky.
In contrast, Edelen, the former state auditor, is “positioning himself as the guy with the grassroots progressive energy,” said Chris Lee, a political strategist who works with Democratic candidates in rural and southern states.
Edelen has campaigned on protecting women’s rights, restoring felon voting rights, and marijuana decriminalization. He has also touted his pledge not to accept corporate campaign contributions from political action committees, or PACs.
Edelen won a coveted endorsement from the Louisville-area Jefferson County Teachers Association, which could be enough to help push him over the finish line, Lee said. The endorsement was “a huge deal, especially in a primary where there’s [expected to be] low turnout,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, Adkins has run as a moderate with crossover appeal. He opposes abortion and also boasts the most union endorsements in the race, factors that could help him win over some moderates and Republicans in a general election. Adkins has represented a slice of eastern Kentucky in the state legislature for three decades and remains one of a few remaining elected Democrats from the area, which has become increasingly conservative.
But Louisville-based Republican strategist Brad Shattuck said Trump’s popularity alone should make Bevin’s reelection easy.
In November, many “voters are going to be looking for someone that is going to support the Trump agenda” Shattuck said.
Bevin has not shied away from fostering a relationship with the White House. According to Politico, the governor has met with Trump 10 times since January 2018. And like the president, Bevin is touting a pro-jobs and economic growth agenda in his reelection campaign, hoping the message can persuade skeptical moderates from backing the Democratic nominee.
Ahead of the primaries Tuesday, Kentucky political watchers predicted turnout would be low on both sides. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes predicted just 12 percent of voters would cast ballots.
No matter the outcome, Kentucky’s three Democratic candidates can agree on one thing: a great distaste for the GOP incumbent.
“Bevin is so unpopular and so hated among grassroots Democrats that I don’t think it’s going to matter that much” who wins the primary, Lee said.
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