The shape of the May 21 Democratic primary for governor became clearer Wednesday night as the three major candidates held their first debate.

Attorney General Andy Beshear’s front-runner status was confirmed by the criticism he got from former state Auditor Adam Edelen, during and after the hour-long encounter.

State House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, the taller, older guy standing between the other two, at times seemed above the fray, and he largely was – so he probably gained most from the encounter.

Adkins did have noticeable difficulty with questions on abortion, the issue that separates him from his rivals and most of the Democratic primary electorate. But his more conservative stances could appeal to rural voters the Democrats need to get back – and thus to voters who are looking for the Democrat best able to oust Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

That’s a good argument for Adkins, but, “I could make a pretty good case for all three of ‘em,” said longtime Democratic consultant Jim Cauley, who says he’s not taking a side in the primary.

A main case for Edelen is money. Bevin is the most unpopular governor in his own state, but he is wealthy, and it will take lots of money to beat him – especially because he can count on support from President Trump, who remains popular in Kentucky and proved his punch in the 6th Congressional District last year.

Edelen has a rich running mate for lieutenant governor, Gill Holland, and they’ve been boosted by TV ads from a political action committee funded by their allies. Those wealthy connections also help them raise money around the nation, so “Adam will be funded in a way that’s not typical,” Cauley said. That probably had something to do with the surprise endorsement Edelen got from the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

“The more balanced one is Andy,” Cauley said. “He has all the assets: name recognition, money, experience, his father” — former governor Steve Beshear — and experience sparring with Bevin in the courts of law and public opinion. That is perhaps Beshear’s main argument. His father put it to me this way: “He has stood up to the bully for four years and won almost every battle.”

That’s a facile line, but beating Matt Bevin in court is not comparable to the task of beating him at the polls. Some doubt he is up to that, Cauley said.

Still, Beshear has a job that enables him to make news with regularity, his last name is a big plus, and his interparty battles with Bevin are reminiscent of the intraparty strife between Wallace Wilkinson and Brereton Jones when they were governor and lieutenant governor in 1987-91 – a conflict that Jones parlayed into the Democratic nomination and the governorship.

Beshear’s name-recognition advantage is evident. In polls taken for his and Edelen’s campaigns this month, he had a 2-1 lead over Edelen and Adkins. Edelen says the race is closer among Democrats who are more likely to vote in a primary where turnout is likely to be less than 20 percent.

Just who will vote in a primary is always an important question, increasingly so for Kentucky Democrats, who haven’t had a contested primary for governor since 2007 (which Steve Beshear won) and suffered an exodus of party members and identifiers while Barack Obama was president. So I asked Edelen to show me his numbers, and his pollster and campaign manager did.

Edelen’s poll of 500 likely voters, taken April 11-15, found that among those who said they were “absolutely certain” to vote, Beshear had 36%, Edelen 30% and Adkins 28%, with the rest undecided.

I asked Beshear’s campaign for their corresponding numbers. In their April 15-18 poll of 601 likely voters, the overall results were essentially the same as among those who said they were “certain” to vote. But that group of voters made up four-fifths of the total sample. Edelen’s “absolutely certain” voters were only one-third of his sample (and thus subject to a larger margin of error).

And what about Adkins’ polls? I gave his folks a general description of the other surveys, but they didn’t respond with any numbers. That could be a function of an underfunded, understaffed campaign, but it could also reflect Adkins’ desire to let Beshear and Edelen cut each other up.

In the 1987 primary, when Steve Beshear attacked former Gov. John Y. Brown, both suffered from the fight, and Wilkinson surged to victory. But his biggest advantage was an issue that caught fire in the last month of the race: his proposal for a state lottery.

In this primary, no such issue seems at the ready, so perhaps Adam Edelen will use his money to make Andy Beshear the issue. And that will surely be just fine with Rocky Adkins.

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. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

Recommended for you