FRANKFORT – In little more than five weeks, Kentuckians will go to the polls to begin the process of electing their next governor, or giving the current one four more years. But the race has seemed to have a slow pace.
That’s partly because there are fewer journalists to cover it, leaving the candidates’ media messages largely unfiltered and unquestioned. But if you look closely, their first television commercials and strategies say significant things about their campaigns.
That applies even to the only major Democrat who just started paid TV, state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins. He started with modest buys Monday, but didn’t buy in Louisville until late Friday, after this column was initially published -- saying the website where TV stations have to post their political orders showed no Louisville buys for him. Adkins is most conservative Democrat in the race, and is banking on rural voters.
Adkins’ opposite number on the ideological and financial spectrum is former state auditor Adam Edelen, who has been running a heavy TV schedule in Louisville and Lexington for four weeks – initially relying on likewise heavy buys by a “super PAC” (political action committee) run by supporters who say they’re following the rules and not coordinating with his campaign.
Edelen’s own campaign is so well funded – apparently by his running mate for lieutenant governor, Louisville filmmaker Gill Holland – that it’s running both 30-second and 15-second ads at heavy frequency. We’ll know more about the candidates’ funding sources near the end of April, but what are they saying with the money?
Attorney General Andy Beshear’s first ad uses the national attack line that worked for Democrats last fall, that Republicans “are trying to take away coverage for pre-existing conditions” – except he says “some politicians” are doing that, perhaps hoping to avoid turning off Republicans who dislike Gov. Matt Bevin so much that they might vote for Beshear if he gets the Democratic nomination.
Beshear’s ad erects sort of a straw man. Some Republicans might want to weaken Obamacare’s guarantee for coverage of pre-existing conditions, but “It’s inconceivable that any politician would publicly admit they don’t support pre-existing-condition protections,” Washington Post reporter Paige Winfield Cunningham wrote in the paper’s “Health 202” newsletter Friday.
The ad refers to the intervention by Beshear and 15 other Democratic attorneys general in a federal lawsuit in Texas, where a judge ruled Obamacare unconstitutional. Beshear says, “I’m helping lead a national effort to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions.”
When the ruling was issued in December, Beshear said on Twitter, “I will lead the fight to overturn” the ruling. Questioned about that, he declined to repeat the assertion, and said he would be "as vocal if not more vocal" than the other attorneys general.
In the TV spot, Beshear adds that his fight is to “help protect expanded Medicaid, to provide access to affordable health care. Governor Bevin won’t.” That is the most substantive part of the ad.
Beshear’s father, then-Gov. Steve Beshear, used Obamacare funding to expand Medicaid to cover almost half a million more Kentuckians. Now the state has to pay up to 10 percent of the cost, and Bevin says he will end the expansion unless the courts approve his plan to require work or other “community engagement” by able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries who don’t have dependents.
When Steve Beshear was governor, he predicted that Obamacare would eventually be a political plus for Kentucky Democrats, as voters saw the benefits of near-universal health coverage. The son appears to be betting that the father was correct.
The ads from Beshear and Edelen both attack the unpopular Bevin, who has made himself a bigger target recently with his comments dissing vaccinations and University of Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz, and his public spat with state Senate President Robert Stivers. That has given juice to underdog Republican challenger Robert Goforth, a state representative whose ad decries Bevin’s “arrogance and insults.”
Edelen’s attack is less on Bevin than on the political system. In his 15-second spot, Edelen calls Bevin “just another sellout” but emphasizes the 15-to-1 ratio of lobbyists to legislators in Frankfort.
Edelen may be running the best-funded campaign, but his 30-second ad emphasizes his humble roots: “If you’ve ever prayed your mom’s car would start on a cold morning; ever sweated the rent; or saw your dad get laid off from the plant; well, we’ve got something in common. . . . I’m the only candidate for governor not taking a dime of corporate PAC money.”
Well. Not only does corporate PAC money play a small role in gubernatorial campaigns, with a super PAC and a well-heeled running mate, Edelen doesn’t need it. The phrase is really just a label for “lobbying-interest influence.”
We need more than 30 seconds with these guys. Let’s go see ‘em while there’s still time.
Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column first appeared in the Courier-Journal.