In this edition: Kentucky's wild primary for governor, the politics of antiabortion Democrats, and Bernie adjusting to second place.
I learned the hard way that you can't buy bourbon in Kentucky before Sunday afternoon, and this is The Trailer.
SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — On Friday night, the three leading Democrats in the race for governor of Kentucky stood under a portrait of Colonel Sanders to answer their state's biggest political question. Who could beat Gov. Matt Bevin, the Republican who had been making their lives miserable?
“I got in this race because of Matt Bevin's agenda,” Rocky Adkins, the Democratic leader in the state House, told the hundred Shelby County Democrats who'd gathered in a replica of one of Sanders's homes.
“We absolutely must beat Matt Bevin this fall, and if there's one thing I know how to do, it's beat this governor,” said Andy Beshear, the state's attorney general, referring to a run of successful lawsuits.
“I'm running for governor not to beat Matt Bevin, though it's a hell of a fringe benefit,” said Adam Edelen, a former state auditor turned solar-energy entrepreneur. “I am running for the opportunity to build a modern Kentucky.”
Bevin, whose years-long battles with teachers and public-sector unions has made him wildly unpopular, is seen as vulnerable despite his party's political dominance in the state. He has been tied up in court over an attempt to add work requirements for Medicaid recipients and over bipartisan efforts to ban abortion; he earned the wrong kind of national attention after speculating that a teacher's strike led to a child's death. He's facing a primary challenge from Robert Goforth, a state legislator who says Bevin has squandered his opportunities; at the same time, he has presided over Republican gains that replaced a Democratic state House with a GOP supermajority.
“I have never led in any poll or been popular in any survey that has ever been done,” he said this year, after one survey pegged him as the least-popular governor in America. "Polls, schmolls."
Kentucky Democrats held onto power longer than their counterparts in any other Southern state and are eager to prove that the party can win again in "Trump Country." But they're hurtling toward a May 21 gubernatorial primary with three very different theories of recovery. Adkins, who has held onto a rural Appalachian district amid a Democratic wipeout, is antiabortion and says he could compete for social conservatives. Beshear, whose father was a popular two-term governor, talks about stopping Bevin's biggest excesses in court and getting the state back to balance.
And Edelen, who blames the “quiet, tired pablum of the past” for his party's decline, argues that Bevin can be beaten by a new economic agenda of renewable energy, rural broadband and decriminalized marijuana — not giving up on rural Kentucky, but boosting turnout in suburbs that have turned on the modern GOP. To push back against the idea that the governor's unpopularity will sink him, Edelen invokes the double whammy of 2015 and 2016, two elections that his party thought were impossible to lose, until they lost them.
“Matt Bevin was an early predictor of Donald Trump in both form and fashion, and the campaign we ran against him clearly sought to disqualify him,” Edelen said in an interview. “It was: 'Oh, this guy is crazy! He can't be governor! He's too radical.' And the people of Kentucky listened to his message and delivered him a victory in a landslide, which is what happened again nationally in 2016.”
Every candidate's case against Bevin starts with the teachers. A year ago, with Republicans in full control of the legislative agenda, Bevin replaced teachers's pension plans with less-generous investment portfolios, then vetoed a budget that would have raised education spending. After protests, a bipartisan coalition overrode the veto; after a lawsuit, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned the pension plan. Adkins and Beshear, who battled Bevin from different parts of the capitol, have made those victories the centerpieces of their campaigns.
“There's no place to hide on that House floor,” Adkins told supporters at a Saturday night rally in his hometown. “You go toe to toe with the governor.” In an interview, and everywhere he goes, Beshear recalls just how badly Bevin lost the pensions fight: “We took him to court and we beat him, seven to nothing.”
Bevin's reelection argument rhymes with the one the president is planning for 2020. He's right, the left is wrong, and the state's booming economy can prove it. In Bevin's first TV ad, the first image of the governor is from a meeting with Trump. (The president even tapped Bevin's pollster for his 2016 campaign.)
“President Trump is taking America to new heights, but it hasn't been easy,” Bevin says in the ad. “People are afraid of change. But I'm not, and neither is the president.”
Like Trump, Bevin is ready to brand any Democrat who escapes the primary as a socialist who'd ruin everything that's working. “All three of them voted for Hillary Clinton,” said Bevin strategist Chip Englander. “All three of them would back a socialist agenda that the voters of Kentucky have rejected.”
But the Democrats could not be more different. Beshear, who started out as the heavy favorite in the primary and leads in public polls, argues that the governor is hyping a weak record and that pulling him out of office can stop his threats to pensions and health care in an instant. Facing the prospect of a GOP supermajority, he's suggested he could implement basic rights changes, such as restoring the franchise to nonviolent felons, and bring more business to impoverished counties.
"Talk to any Kentucky family, especially one outside of our three largest cities, and they'll tell you they haven't seen a new job in their community in years,” Beshear said in an interview. “We have the third-lowest per capita income in the country. We have the third-lowest wage growth in the country. We have twice the number of minimum wage jobs as the national average, and our minimum wage is lower than it is in many other states.”
Edelen's argument is twofold: that Democrats can't win just by opposing Bevin and that Beshear would be a uniquely weak opponent for him. Both men were on the ballot in 2015, and Beshear narrowly won his race while Edelen narrowly lost his. But Edelen derides Beshear as a dynastic candidate who's too timid to excite voters. On the stump, he reminds voters that he was the first statewide elected official in Kentucky to endorse same-sex marriage, even though it cost him; he says he'd relish a fight over the future of Appalachia, which would let him talk about solar power as Republicans over-promise on the future of coal.
“We're galvanizing a lot of folks who are not used to hearing a Kentucky politician talk like that,” Edelen said. “But all this mealy-mouthed stuff does is create animosity on both sides.”In the race's final stretch — there will be three debates before voting starts — Edelen has mostly turned his fire on Beshear. One of his TV spots introduces voters to his father, a farmer, to contrast with the front-runner and his famous name. Another ad attacks Beshear over an aide's conviction in a kickback scheme, which he warns would be easy fodder for Bevin in a general election.
“That extra negativity is doing Matt Bevin's work for him,” Beshear said.
Neither Democrat is engaging with Adkins, whose pitch is simple: As a social conservative, the “only rural Kentuckian on the ballot,” he'd deprive Bevin of the social issues that powered his 2015 win. It would also separate him from most Democrats. Adkins, despite leading his party in the House, broke with most members to back a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy; he broke with them again to support a “trigger” law, which would ban abortion in the state if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned.
If nominated, Adkins would be one of three antiabortion Democratic nominees for governor in the South; Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is seeking a second term, and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is expected to be his party's gubernatorial nominee. To Adkins, the threat of a second Bevin term is so vast that even liberal Democrats, seeing his appeal to eastern Kentucky, would come out to support him. (A fourth Democrat, economist Geoff Young, is running a more left-wing campaign and getting little traction.)
“When I say I'm pro-life, I say that surely these babies have got to have food on the table and a roof over their heads,” Adkins said. “I'm making sure the adoption process is streamlined, and making sure children have the hope and opportunity of a quality education, of quality health care, of an economy where they can have a good job. That's what I'm about when I say I'm pro-life, and a lot of people across Kentucky understand that.”
That's enough for some Democrats. Jenny Williams, a retired teacher, said she “became political when Bevin went after teacher's pensions” and warmed to Adkins when she watched him try to stop the governor. She did not agree with him on abortion, but she kept in mind the many voters who did.
“I have to pick my battles, and frankly, that's not one of them,” she said, explaining her support for Adkins. “If he wins the primary, many Republicans will vote for him, because they've told me so, and that's going to beat Matt Bevin.”
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SANDY HOOK, Ky. — Everything about the “homecoming” rally for Rocky Adkins, from the bluegrass music to the simmering pot of soup beans, announced that this candidate was different.
“Call the folks you know, and tell ‘em they’ve got a native son of rural Kentucky running for governor,” said Adkins, a longtime state legislator, before picking up his guitar to join the band. “I’m a moderate. I’m a middle-of-the-road guy. I’m a common-sense guy.”
Democrats in urban Kentucky may not see an antiabortion stance as “moderate,” but for Adkins it's a key part of his electability pitch.
“I’m pro-life, and so is he,” said Linda Stafford, a longtime Adkins voter who had left her presidential ballot blank in 2016. “A lot of people change over time, but he never has.”
If nominated next week, Adkins would be one of the few avowedly antiabortion Democrats running for high office. He’d be doing so at a moment when the antiabortion movement is passing bill after bill in state legislatures — Kentucky included — designed to get the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to unwind Roe v. Wade, which in turn has galvanized the abortion rights movement.
A win by Adkins could scramble the local politics of abortion when, in the rest of the country, they are becoming more sharply partisan than ever. Just a few hours before Adkins’s rally, in neighboring Ohio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told reporters that she opposed the state’s strict new abortion laws and would even favor scrapping the Hyde Amendment, which for decades has barred federal funding for abortion.
“When I was a little girl, it was a time when back-alley abortions killed people and when young women — girls, really — killed themselves rather than face an unplanned pregnancy,” Warren said. “We're not going back. Not now, not ever.”
Adkins, who if he won the nomination would be bidding for national Democratic Party resources, voted for the same sort of legislation Warren was condemning. The confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and the Republican hammerlock on most red-state legislatures, has quickly unraveled a decades-old political regime in which anything more than crackdowns on abortion clinics was doomed in court.
In Montana and North Carolina, Republicans have passed antiabortion bills, including one — the “Born Alive” legislation — to clarify that viable fetuses who survive abortions must get medical care. (This is already law.) After Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) vetoed a “born alive” bill, the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List booked $200,000 in TV and digital ads branding him an “abortion extremist.”
A February poll found that around one-third of self-identified Democrats consider themselves “pro-life,” a term whose definition is still disputed. In a Gallup poll last year, asked specifically whether abortion should be illegal, 11 percent of Democrats said that it should — a position shared by exactly none of the party’s 21 presidential candidates, or by Bullock, who is widely expected to announce his own bid soon.
But Adkins makes it easy for social conservatives who have economic or personal gripes with Bevin. He's with them. He votes for their abortion bills. And there are Democrats who argue that this makes him uniquely electable, knocking out one of Bevin's strongest arguments for reelection.
“Rocky is hugely popular in the mountains — like, Trump-level popular,” said Matt Jones, a radio host who moderated the first Democratic gubernatorial debate and is considering a Democratic bid against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Would he suppress turnout in Lexington and Louisville? Maybe, but Democrats hate Matt Bevin so much that they'd mostly hold their noses and vote for him.”
Republicans have their doubts about that. The prospect of three antiabortion Democrats leading the party's tickets in 2019's gubernatorial races — Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi — would not have been news 20 years ago. But today's Democratic Party is on war footing for choice. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez discovered that in 2017 when they supported a Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha who, as a legislator, had supported abortion restrictions. That earned the wrath of NARAL Pro-Choice America, hand-wringing from both Perez and Sanders and, eventually, a defeat for that candidate.
In Kentucky, Republicans think the Democrats could be rattled by either an Adkins nomination or by a victory for Andy Beshear, whose running mate, an educator who ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature, had once called herself “pro-life.” Beshear, unlike Adkins, has pushed back on the idea that he'd lead an antiabortion administration.
“Not only is this a pro-choice ticket, not only am I pro-choice and support Roe v. Wade, but it's [about] talk versus action here,” Beshear said in an interview. “While other people talk about their views, in 2017 when the legislature passed an illegal bill that curtailed reproductive freedom, I refused to defend it.”
Adkins, whose stump speech does not mention abortion, says little about the legislative campaign to ban it. Asked whether he would want Kentucky to be the state that got the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, he said it was a “hypothetical question,” and would support current law up until the court acted.
“When you're the governor, you put your hand on the Bible and you take the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, to uphold the law of the land,” he said. “And that's what I will do.”
In interviews, many attendees at Adkins's homecoming rally said they'd favor banning abortion in any case where the life of a mother was not at risk but did not see it rising to the top of the candidate's agenda. Many said they'd backed Trump for president; Elliott County, which had gone for Barack Obama for president in 2008, gave Trump 70.1 percent of the vote.
“People in eastern Kentucky believe that the child's got rights,” said Reggie Dickenson, who helped set up the concert stage and who in 2015 had backed Bevin for governor. “We know two things: That baby's alive, and it's human… and Rocky knows that, too.”
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North Carolina Senate. Garland Tucker, the independently wealthy challenger to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), made his on-air debut with an ad accusing the senator of a “flip-flop under pressure” on the president's emergency border declaration.
At issue in the ad, and in the campaign, was how Tillis took a surprise stance against the declaration, before eventually voting with most Republicans to uphold it.
“What Congress needs is backbone,” Tucker says on camera. “I'm Garland Tucker, and I don't have to think twice about cutting foreign aid."
Kamala Harris. She told CNN's Jake Tapper that she would not have voted for NAFTA had she been there for the vote in 1994, separating her from Joe Biden, who at the moment is the only leading Democratic candidate not distancing himself from that trade deal.
Cory Booker. He told ABC News that Elizabeth Warren's proposal to break up big tech companies “sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say,” quickly pointing out that he did not mean to literally compare her to Trump.
Elizabeth Warren. She got sizable crowds on a swing through West Virginia and Ohio, with a new tool in her town hall toolbox: asking how many attendees knew people who had died of opioid overdoses.
Amy Klobuchar. She became the latest 2020 candidate to visit Puerto Rico.
Pete Buttigieg. He headlined a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Las Vegas, decrying “identity politics” and attacking Vegas-based GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson.
Michael Bennet. He stumped in Iowa over the weekend and told CBS's “Face the Nation” that the China tariff policy probably would fail: “I can assure you the Chinese have a longer attention span that Donald Trump has.”
Seth Moulton. In a “Fox News Sunday” interview, he emphasized how much more he's focused on foreign policy than other Democrats: “I don't believe that we can win this race if we don't challenge Donald Trump, not just on his job as president, but in his job as commander in chief.”
Bernie Sanders. He's speaking at a Green New Deal rally in Washington on Monday, for the conclusion of the Sunrise Movement's national tour; he's swinging through four Southern states next weekend.
Bernie's dilemma. Three months ago, Howard Schultz was hinting that he'd run for president because the Democratic Party was too left-wing to nominate someone like Joe Biden. One month ago, some elite Democrats were nervous that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could navigate the party's primaries with just 30 percent or so of the vote, clinching the nomination and making it tough for them to support him.
A lot has changed since then. Polls from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina show Biden in command. The former vice president gets smaller crowds than Sanders, but most voters don't attend rallies, and most Democrats are comfortable, for now, supporting Biden. More problematically for Sanders: He has near-universal name recognition in the early states and is polling around 20 percent.
Early polling, especially state polling, is fallible, but it's a bit more credible if the subjects are well known. One theory of victory for Sanders is that he can expand the primary electorate, pulling in new voters who might not show up in polls; another is that he could benefit from a split field where he stands out as the strongest left-wing candidate. But the recovery of Elizabeth Warren has come at Sanders's expense, and the faltering of Beto O'Rourke and (to a lesser extent) Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris has mostly benefited Biden; Democrats focused on “electability” do not, at the moment, buy into Sanders's case that he's stronger than Biden.
Sanders is the only candidate making a sustained critique of Biden and is expected to draw more contrasts at Monday's Green New Deal rally; Biden's slow rollout of a “middle ground” climate policy was condemned by many on the left, who were amplified by Sanders. But every other campaign is watching to see whether the attack hurts Sanders; the dynamics of a multicandidate race, where people outside the fray can benefit from a fight between front-runners, are nothing like the dynamics of Sanders's 2016 race against Clinton.
. . . five days until Bernie Sanders begins a swing through Southern states
. . . six days until Joe Biden's “unity” campaign launch