LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Looking to revive their slumping political party, three prominent Democrats running for Kentucky governor took turns portraying themselves as the strongest challenger to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin during a high-stakes debate Monday evening.
With the primary election barely a week away, Democrats Andy Beshear, Rocky Adkins and Adam Edelen delved into the state's public pension woes, efforts to improve education and revamp the tax code during a rapid fire, hour-long debate in Lexington on Kentucky Educational Television.
The first question was one that looms as an important one for Democratic voters — which candidate would be the strongest standard-bearer to take on an incumbent governor in a state that has tilted heavily toward the GOP in recent elections.
Adkins portrayed himself as a "middle of the road, common sense Democrat" with strong rural ties and a long legislative career that he said would make him ready to "hit the ground running on day one" if elected governor. He said it's the type of pedigree needed to win back Democrats who have strayed to support the GOP and to even pick up support from moderate Republicans in the general election.
Beshear, the state's attorney general, said he's shown himself to be "the guy that's beaten Matt Bevin time and time again" in a series of courtroom battles challenging some of the governor's executive actions on education and pensions.
Edelen, a former state auditor, said it's his "future-focused" economic vision that separates him from his Democratic rivals and makes him the strongest challenger to Bevin. Edelen said Democrats need to learn the lessons from the "debacle in 2015" — when a strong Republican showing put Bevin in the governor's office while Edelen was defeated in his run for a second term as auditor.
"You cannot win an election merely when you define your candidacy in opposition to something," he said. "You have to run on what you're for."
Edelen was asked if his progressive stands on social and economic issues could hurt him with "swing voters" in the fall. Edelen replied that they're the "economic pre-conditions of being able to build a modern Kentucky."
"If standing up for the equality of all people ... is outside the mainstream, then Kentucky is really in big trouble," he said.
Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, was asked if he's leaning on his father's legacy as a popular, two-term governor in trying to win the election. Andy Beshear replied: "I believe that the voters know me for me," as he touted his record as attorney general throughout the debate.
Afterward, state Republican Party spokesman Mike Lonergan said in a statement that the debate showed that "Kentuckians know all too well we can't afford to go back to the bad old days of Democrat control."
During the debate, Beshear and Edelen had a somewhat-testy exchange over support for higher education.
Beshear pointed to his lawsuit early in his term as AG that blocked Bevin from cutting state universities' budgets after the legislature had already appropriated their funding. The state Supreme Court ruled that the governor exceeded his statutory authority.
"It took courage," Beshear said. "I think what people have to look for out there is you're going to have to put trust in your next governor. And who's going to have the courage to do the right things for higher education when it's hard."
Edelen responded: "With respect, Andy, lawsuits aren't going to save the availability of a higher education to the middle and the working class."
What's needed is leadership to build public support for increased higher education funding, Edelen said.
"You're a great lawyer," Edelen said to Beshear. "I don't think anybody disputes that. But we've got to have a governor who builds a modern system of higher education."
Adkins, the top-ranking Democrat in the GOP-dominated House, called for a statewide infrastructure plan when asked about drinking water problems in Martin County, where water systems are plagued by shortages and drinkability issues.
"Kentucky is hungry again for a statewide infrastructure plan that we started implementing 30 years ago," Adkins said, adding that the legislature has not done a water and sewer infrastructure bill since the 2008 session. He said much of the state has water and sewer lines in place but those systems are aging.
Edelen said the water problems in the Appalachian county point to a larger need for a governor who can "balance the need for economic develop with environmental stewardship."
Beshear said his office launched an investigation into the Martin County water issues and said an outside agent should get involved in helping implement a plan to fix the water systems.
The state's primary election is May 21. The other Democrat running for governor is frequent candidate Geoff Young. Bevin's GOP primary challengers are state Rep. Robert Goforth, William Woods and Ike Lawrence.
Kentucky is among three states electing governors in 2019. The others are Louisiana and Mississippi.
Dylan Lovan in Louisville contributed to this report.