Why you should care
Because Southern Dems aren’t dead.
Here in Meade County, under a portrait of a grinning JFK, Kentucky’s hungriest Democrat is making his case to a roomful of voters — farmers and factory workers who call themselves liberals but don’t much sympathize with Northern elites, or even feel the Bern. “It’s about the values of Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings,” says Adam Edelen, in the particular cadence of a Southern Democrat.
It’s a good, godly line, and so is this one: “Maybe this side of the aisle should put down the books of Ayn Rand and pick up the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” as Edelen told his opponents not long ago. Note the not-so-veiled criticism of, you guessed it, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who’s lagging in presidential polls but is still well-loved in his home state. Who, then, is this seemingly random Edelen to critique the senator? He’s a mere state auditor … for now. And though Election Day finds Edelen defending his state seat, Kentucky insiders say he’ll soon be over the small-time. In fact, Democrats have pinned their hopes on him to unseat Paul in next year’s Senate election. “He’s seen as a rising star of the party,” says Steve Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “The only serious candidate’s name I’ve heard” as a potential Paul challenger, echoes Danny Briscoe, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.
With folksy roots and a silver tongue, Edelen has drawn comparisons to Southern Democrats like John Edwards and Bill Clinton from the likes of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Just last year, Edelen considered a run for governor, and though he ultimately declined — allies say he didn’t believe he could raise the funds at the time — he has a reputation, Voss says, as a “professional who will get the job done.”
Like Republicans, Democrats have become hyper-partisan as of late, swinging more socially liberal and secular, according to the Pew Research Center. Compared with Sanders et al., Edelen seems positively Reaganesque — necessary in purple Kentucky, where the governor’s a Democrat, but Paul and Mitch McConnell also reign. To be sure, Edelen’s in step with his party brethren on free trade, workers’ rights, gay marriage and abortion. But he’s against gun restrictions — he grew up with a Daisy BB gun and a single-shot .22 — and touts faith and family as a Presbyterian parishioner. He’s especially critical of Dems who, he says, try to appeal to voters’ smarts and neglect their hearts: “There aren’t enough Prius drivers to win an election,” as he puts it.
For better and for worse, all his bragging rights are hyper-local: Within days of becoming state auditor in 2012, Edelen launched an investigation that led to ethics charges, jail time and fines for a former agriculture commissioner. Since then, he has audited public schools and hospitals, and dug in on police districts, discovering 3,000 rape kits that sat untested. Public crusader can be a stepping stone. But it says something that while Edelen lobs criticisms at Paul — saying he neglected his state for the glimmer of the Oval Office — the senator’s campaign won’t give him the time of day: “We aren’t going to comment on a nonexistent opponent,” spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper tells OZY, pointing to Paul’s near-perfect Senate attendance record as evidence that he’s working hard for Kentuckians.
“What do you say, judge?” Edelen asked two weeks ago over the phone, pen in hand, his campaign manager typing next to him in the upstairs office of a hipster art museum in Louisville. They were fundraising, nearing $1 million, as of filing reports at the beginning of October, and hundreds of thousands ahead of his competitor, Mike Harmon (who didn’t respond to calls). Edelen’s leading the local polls. But gunning for just a million has him sighing, tired: “What a day,” he said, before plugging in his earphones for one last round of calls.
Next year, if he takes the plunge — he hasn’t announced anything yet — Edelen will have far more money to raise and far heavier calls to make: Last year’s contest cost $78 million between the two candidates, McConnell and newcomer Alison Lundergan Grimes. Plus, Paul remains formidable in his home state — indeed, some experts believe that seeing Paul in a presidential debate will only help with recognition. To top it off, Kentucky’s trending red: Less than two-fifths of Kentuckians voted for Obama in 2012, despite picking Clinton twice in the ’90s.
Which means Edelen, like other Democrats on conservative turf, will distance himself from the commander in chief. That may come naturally for this poor boy done good, born to a 16-year-old mother and a tobacco farmer father, who shuttled between urban Louisville and rural Meade County, and had to scrap to graduate college in six years. His voice shakes as he calls the comments Obama made in 2008 about Middle Americans clinging to their guns and religion “deeply offensive.”
Driving along Kentucky’s empty highways, Edelen points out the window at an industrial plant, and wonders at the working class farm and factory types passing by, and a national party that, perhaps, has left candidates like him behind as well. “We should be picking up these people in droves,” Edelen says, “and we’re losing them, because our folks seem to have no interest in communicating to them.”