News Analysis: What Happened to Adam Edelen?

Adam Edelen | Photo by Joe Sonka

Adam Edelen ran a notably progressive campaign in the governor’s race, emphasizing his work on a solar energy project in Eastern Kentucky, support of women being able to have abortions if they choose and his proposals to decriminalize recreational marijuana use and help open a black-owned bank in West Louisville.

He won the endorsements of left-leaning groups like the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s political action committee and got national media coverage for running in a liberal style that Democrats often avoid in red states.

It wasn’t surprising that Edelen lost the Democratic primary last week. But it was a bit surprising how he lost — finishing in third place and carrying neither Jefferson nor Fayette counties, the two urban centers where it seemed his liberal approach might resonate the most.

So why did Edelen’s campaign fall flat? And what does his defeat say about progressive politics in Kentucky?

Without detailed exit polls of voters, it’s hard to definitively say exactly what happened last week. But here are some possible explanations:

1) The Beshear Brand

Kentucky and national politics obviously have some major differences, but it’s worth considering what is happening in the 2020 Democratic primary race so far — Joe Biden has a big lead. Does that tell us that the party is resisting the liberal pull of figures like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren? Maybe.

But it could be that Biden simply has really high-name recognition from having served as vice president, is generally well-liked by Democrats and is a comforting and reassuring figure for those in the party nostalgic about Barack Obama’s presidency and very worried about Donald Trump winning a second term.

Andy Beshear had essentially that same set of advantages in this race — the famous name, the generally positive impressions of his father’s tenure as governor, the promise of a return to the good old days for Democrats, when a Beshear ran the state government instead of a man many in the party loath, Matt Bevin.

It may have been the case that no other Democrat really had much of a chance in a Democratic primary in 2019 against a person whose last name is Beshear. Remember that in a December 2018 poll conducted by the firm Mason-Dixon, 63 percent of Kentucky voters said they didn’t know who Adam Edelen is. Adkins was similarly unknown (58 percent), while all but 7 percent of voters said that were familiar with Andy Beshear. I suspect those voters knew his last name more than his first name.

2) The moderate views of Kentucky Democrats

This wasn’t shocking, but Adkins won basically the entire eastern part of the state, even though he has voted in favor of a number of bills designed to limit abortion. A candidate with such a record on abortion would likely struggle in a national Democratic primary. So Adkins getting 32 percent of the overall vote suggests that many Kentucky Democrats are not across-the-board progressives.

Even in Jefferson (10 percent) and Fayette (22 percent) counties, Adkins had decent support. There were likely some Adkins voters who share his anti-abortion views and others who put aside that issue because Adkins has a generally liberal voting record overall and cast himself as the Democrat best able to win the general election because of his base in the state’s rural areas.

In Jefferson County, results from individual precincts suggest that Edelen did well in areas around the Highlands, while Beshear easily won in west and south Louisville. This is a dynamic we are seeing right now at the national level, too — Biden is doing particularly well among black Democrats, more moderate Democrats and those in the party without college degrees, while other Democrats (so self-described liberals in particular) are less supportive of him.

In short, Edelen may have been running the kind of campaign likely to resonate deeply in the Highlands but not in other parts of Kentucky or even Louisville.

3) Edelen as a candidate

Edelen did not have a long-established record as a strong progressive before this campaign, so he may not have been the ideal candidate to run with this approach. In the past, he had arguably positioned himself more in the center-left than left of the Democratic Party — Edelen once served as chief of staff to Gov. Steve Beshear, who was not a particularly liberal figure.

In the early stages of his gubernatorial campaign, Edelen apologized for a 2016 tweet in which he wrote of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling in protest of racial inequality: “Kaepernick has the right to disrespect our country. I have the right to regard him as a horse’s ass.”

That tweet was probably not politically problematic if you were planning a statewide campaign in 2016 (or perhaps even now) as a Democrat trying to appeal to more conservative voters outside of Louisville and Lexington. But it did not fit Edelen’s approach in 2019 — running as the liberal alternative to Beshear.

So Edelen’s past probably limited his ability to galvanize Kentucky’s liberals — since he had to build trust among them during the campaign, as opposed to already having it.

Also, while Edelen choosing Gill Holland as his running mate was helpful in part because Holland pumped more $2 million of his own money into the campaign, that decision probably had a downside as well — the ticket running as the most progressive was the only one made up of two white men, even as the Democratic Party increasingly emphasizes its gender and racial diversity.

I’m not suggesting that Edelen necessarily would have won if his running mate were, say, state representatives Attica Scott or Joni Jenkins, or Louisville Metro Council President David James. But a more diverse ticket might have reinforced Edelen’s presentation as a progressive candidate.

4) Beshear moving left

Edelen and his aides were probably conscious that running way left (embracing, say, major tax increases for the wealthy or free college for all Kentuckians) might play in the primary, but would render him too far left to win the general election. So his liberalism was somewhat measured — making it easy for Beshear to basically match Edelen’s stances and limit the distinctions between the two candidates.

Edelen’s marijuana position got a lot of attention, but Beshear said he, too, didn’t think people who used small amounts of pot should go to jail. With Edelen emphasizing his support of a woman being able to choose to have an abortion, Beshear did the same. He strongly criticized a recently passed law in Alabama that basically bans all abortions, and on the eve of the primary, Beshear touted his endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a national group that opposes most abortion restrictions.

Also, Beshear had some pre-existing bonafides with liberal activists based on the numerous lawsuits he filed as attorney general to stop various initiatives of Bevin and Republicans in the state legislative.

Obviously, it matters which candidates takes positions first — and Edelen did lead with his progressivism in a way that Beshear didn’t. But by the end of the campaign, the gap between them may not have been very large for voters. I suspect even some people who consider themselves fairly liberal backed Beshear or were fine with him winning the primary.

That leads to me an alternative way to think about this race:

5) Maybe Edelen “won” in a broader sense

Edelen got 28 percent of the vote in a race against two fairly good opponents — Beshear and Adkins, whose long tenure representing eastern Kentucky in the General Assembly made him a particularly strong candidate in that region. A poll released by Beshear’s campaign in February showed the attorney general at 55 percent, Adkins at 17, Edelen 7, suggesting that Edelen made sizable gains in the last few months.

He probably pushed Beshear to be more vocally liberal than the attorney general might have been otherwise. And Edelen showed there was a viable path for a Democrat to run for governor in Kentucky and emphasize progressive issues.

So I will be watching for echoes of how Edelen ran in future Kentucky campaigns. For example, if you’re one of the Democrats looking to succeed Greg Fischer as Louisville’s mayor in 2022 (Fischer can’t run for a fourth term because of term limits), Edelen’s model of taking strongly progressive stands is a more logical path for you than Beshear’s, which I would argue is at least in part reliant on your father having been a two-term governor.

Getting the Highlands crowd behind you doesn’t guarantee a victory in the mayoral election — but it’s a good starting point, in terms of both raising money and getting support from key activists. The ways Edelen talked about abortion, energy, marijuana and race in particular seemed to register with the state’s liberal activists — who are likely to press future candidates to take similar tactics.

So Adam Edelen lost last week. But it’s not yet clear if his ideas and vision lost, too.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer who is based in Louisville.