Politics & Government

Out but not down, Adam Edelen says his hiatus from politics is temporary

Incumbent Adam Edelen conceded the Auditor of Public Accounts race to Mike Harmon at Democratic election night headquarters at the Frankfort Convention Center in Frankfort, Ky., on Nov. 3, 2015.
Incumbent Adam Edelen conceded the Auditor of Public Accounts race to Mike Harmon at Democratic election night headquarters at the Frankfort Convention Center in Frankfort, Ky., on Nov. 3, 2015. palcala@herald-leader.com

It wasn’t where he was supposed to be Monday morning.

He was supposed to be in Frankfort, being sworn in to a second term as the state auditor and a few weeks into his campaign against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

But there was Adam Edelen, sitting and smiling in the undecorated office he has opened in downtown Lexington and showing no ill-effects of an election that sent him to the private sector instead of a high-profile U.S. Senate campaign.

“It was disconcerting, but I got over it in a couple of days because you’ve got to prefer your future to your past,” Edelen said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader, Edelen talked about what that future might entail, what went wrong for the Democratic Party last year and what it’s going to take for Democrats to be competitive in a state that has lurched hard to the right in recent years.

The thrust of the conversation is that Edelen isn’t going away despite his shocking loss to new state Auditor Mike Harmon.

After that defeat, Edelen and his wife, Melissa, went on a short vacation.

While away, Edelen’s phone rang. It was U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the next Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, and he was calling to try and persuade Edelen to proceed with a challenge to Paul despite his statewide loss.

That call was followed with a meeting in Washington, and while he said he was flattered, Edelen held firm that he will not run against Kentucky’s junior senator this year, even as he lamented that he thinks Paul would be ripe for defeat in a “fair fight.”

“It’s just I don’t think the timing’s right for me, and I don’t think the timing’s right politically,” Edelen said. “That’s not to say Rand Paul’s not weak. He certainly is. That’s not to say he can’t be beaten. He certainly can. I just don’t believe I’m the person, given this point in my life and my children’s lives and in my family’s lives, I’m not the person to make the case in 2016.”

I was the proverbial baby in the bath water, and it’s been easier to make peace with that as a result.

Adam Edelen

After watching Republican Matt Bevin win the gubernatorial election in a landslide, Edelen said Paul’s party registration might be enough for him to win re-election even though Paul’s presidential race and voting record on national security issues puts him out of step with Kentucky voters.

“His record is not one that lends itself to re-election,” Edelen said. “The question is whether his registration can preserve him, and I think that’s their calculation. And who’s to say they’re wrong?”

Despite his firm decision not to run, Edelen said he thinks Democrats will have a strong candidate, though he couldn’t say for sure who would be best to run.

But Edelen was resolute when asked if he was done with politics.

“No, far from it,” he said.

With another governor’s race in 2019 and a U.S. Senate race in 2020, Edelen said he’s “not ruling anything out.”

“But the [Democratic] party’s got a long way to go before I think we will be trusted as a potential governing party again,” he said.

Edelen holds a harsh view of what ails Democrats in Kentucky, criticizing the “debacle” that was former Attorney General Jack Conway’s gubernatorial campaign strategy, a lack of authenticity from Democratic candidates and the absence of a meaningful primary last year.

As auditor, Edelen was widely praised for his work, winning compliments from both sides of the aisle and even an endorsement from a Republican state senator.

“It didn’t matter in this election,” he said. “I was the proverbial baby in the bath water, and it’s been easier to make peace with that as a result.”

He continued: “The election in the auditors race wasn’t about the auditors race. It was about abysmally low turnout, and I want to acknowledge that the Democratic Party is, I think, largely responsible for that because I think it was pretty clear there was a low turnout strategy at the top of the ticket, which was the worst idea since New Coke. And it was a total debacle, and I think ultimately it’s why I lost my seat.”

But Edelen said he doesn’t hold any animosity toward Conway for employing a strategy that Edelen came to see as “crazy.”

“It’s hard to have any animosity because the campaign that he ran, or was run for him, was a disservice to the kind of guy he is,” Edelen said. “In my view, he should’ve run a campaign that said ‘I’ll never be the life of the party, I’m probably never going to give you warm, fuzzy feelings, but I’m a serious guy who will tell you the truth and wake up and work for you every day. And that’s not the campaign we got.”

Instead, Conway focused the lion’s share of his efforts in trying to define Bevin as a liar and tax dodger, attacks that Edelen said were “all true.”

“Bevin has trouble with consistently telling the truth. Matt Bevin was sort of all over the map in his answers to policy questions. Matt Bevin has struggled to pay his taxes. These are all true,” he said. “But just talking about the shortcomings of the other person, free of sort of establishing a rationale for why you ought to be elected, had tragic consequences this election, and as a result, it nearly took down the entire ticket.”

Edelen seriously considered his own bid for governor before ultimately deciding that Conway’s early and concerted effort to lock down fundraisers and endorsements left little room to run in the primary.

Looking back now, Edelen said that decision taught him two lessons: Democrats need primaries, and he’s “never going to run on the down ballot again.”

“I’ve had it with being in races where your ability to control your own destiny is severely limited by someone else,” he said. “That’s not a mistake I’ll be repeating in the future.”

Edelen said the absence of a primary last year left Conway without a connection to the grass roots and made the party “weaker.”

“This notion that a handful of people get together in a backroom and select our nominee, which is clearly what happened in this election, and then convince everyone else that in the name of party unity we need to line up, that approach never allowed Jack to form any connective tissue between activists or the grassroots,” Edelen said.

For the party to have a future, Edelen said, Democrats will have to find new voices who can articulate new ideas.

“The old names and old faces are not going to return the Democratic Party to power in Kentucky,” he said. “We need new energy and we need new ideas in abundance, and the best way you do that is involve a whole new group of people.”

Two of those old names — Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear — survived the Republican wave last November, anomalies that Edelen and others attribute to their significant name recognition. Edelen said that neither of them would or should “feel threatened by the emergence of new players and new people.”

But he was quick to add that the “notion that somehow we can just repair the old model” is a recipe for future defeats.

“The born-on-third-base crowd talking about raising the minimum wage is neither authentic nor is it effective,” he said. “And the people of this state aren’t buying it.”

For now, Edelen is focused on building his management consultancy firm, helping businesses expand and entrepreneurs in rural Kentucky get started.

He plans to be vocal when he disagrees with Bevin’s “hard right” agenda, and he plans to mentor younger candidates and find new voices for a party that seems to be on its last legs.

He’s looking forward to reading, writing some and coaching his twin 10-year-old sons in Little League.

Edelen said his wife is happy about his return to the private sector, but “she knows that it’s temporary — we’ll see how temporary.”

“Kentucky is my passion,” he said. “I’m plainly going to come back at some point, but it’s got to make sense for me, it’s got to make sense for my family and, above all, it’s got to make sense for Kentucky.”