Politics & Government

Will Rocky Adkins be on the ballot in 2020? He says he’s being courted for big races.

Kentucky House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins said he has been approached about running for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell next year after a strong showing in the Democratic gubernatorial primary this spring.

Adkins, who is from Sandy Hook in Eastern Kentucky, won 67 of Kentucky’s 120 counties on his way to a six percentage point defeat at the hands of Attorney General Andy Beshear in a crowded primary election. No major Democratic candidate has declared their intention to challenge McConnell.

“Right now I’m really trying to get rested up from the governor’s race,” Adkins said. “I’ve had several different people contact me to look at different options ... I’m not looking in any direction, I’m keeping my options open.”

Adkins is among a handful of major Democrats approached about challenging McConnell. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has courted former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath and Kentucky Sports Radio founder Matt Jones said he has spoken to Democratic senators about running. Other names have been tossed around as well, such as Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

Adkins would have to give up his role as minority floor leader should he decide to run for a higher office, because his seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives is up for reelection in 2020 and state law prohibits a candidate from appearing on the same ballot twice.

As Kentucky has become increasingly conservative in recent years, Democrats have struggled to bridge the divide between the people who live in the state’s two largest cities — Lexington and Louisville — and those who live in rural areas of the state. As a more conservative, pro-life Democrat, Adkins is seen as the type of candidate who can appeal to rural voters.

“Rocky did himself a lot of favors in his primary,” said Morgan McGarvey, the Kentucky Senate Minority Floor Leader. “What does that look like in 2020? I don’t know.”

His campaign strategy in the race for governor involved heavy emphasizing his upbringing in “the hills of Eastern Kentucky” and appealing to more traditional Democratic voters. His focus on rural areas was enough to catapult him above former state Auditor Adam Edelen, who largely split voters in Lexington and Louisville with Beshear, but not enough to claim victory.

“I think that losing your own party’s primary is not necessarily a spring board to higher office,” said Billy Piper, a lobbyist and former chief of staff for McConnell.

Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins responds to a question during a debate at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Although Adkins’ more conservative stances on abortion and coal may appeal to some in Kentucky, they would make it difficult for him to raise enough money nationally to compete against McConnell, Piper said. He also pointed to the changing political tide in Kentucky, as the state becomes more conservative.

“It’s hard for me to see how any candidate with a D next to their name has a shot at any statewide race in Kentucky,” Piper said. “Especially at the federal level.”

Adkins said he also has been encouraged to consider running in the 5th Congressional District, an Eastern Kentucky seat long held by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset.

Adkins won counties in the 5th District by a wide margin in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, but Rogers is a “popular, entrenched” incumbent, said former Democratic Party Chairman Jonathan Miller.

“At some point, Hal Rogers is going to retire,” Miller said. “And Rocky, if he wants this seat, has to figure out the best way to position himself. And running against him may help.”

Former Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat from Pikeville, said Adkins would be the favorite in both the primary and general elections if Rogers, who turns 82 this December, decides not to seek reelection.

Rogers plans on running again in 2020, according to spokeswoman Danielle Smoot.

“Next year may not be the best time for someone like Rocky to challenge Rogers,” Patton said. “But I would certainly be waiting at the Secretary of State’s office to see if he doesn’t file.”

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.