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How Kentucky governor's race is about to get more money – and turn ugly

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 3/13/2019 Phillip M. Bailey
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Governor candidate Adam Edelen shakes hands with Kentucky teachers before the hearing for House Bill 525 at the Kentucky Capitol on Thursday. Feb. 28, 2019 © Alton Strupp/Courier Journal Governor candidate Adam Edelen shakes hands with Kentucky teachers before the hearing for House Bill 525 at the Kentucky Capitol on Thursday. Feb. 28, 2019

Democrat Adam Edelen appears poised to benefit from a new super PAC, started by a supporter of his race for Kentucky governor. 

The group's debut is a sign that the primary contest — which features Attorney General Andy Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins — could turn ugly, as super PACs are known to use negative ads to promote their candidates.

"Super PACs do change the race, and can have a major effect if they have enough money and they're well run," said Democratic consultant Danny Briscoe, who has worked on various statewide campaigns.

Kentuckians for a Better Future formed in December 2018, and will raise money "supporting or opposing candidates" through the May election, according to paperwork filed with the state's campaign finance agency.

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Democrat Dustin Robinson, the group's chairman, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Erik Pederson, who is listed as its treasurer, declined to comment.

Robinson served as a spokesman for New Leaders Council — a nonprofit dedicated to grooming young progressive candidates — for about three years, according to his LinkedIn page. He is an outspoken supporter of Edelen, based upon a review of his other social media accounts.

"The (governor's) race isn't going to be won by incrementalism," Robinson said in a Feb. 26 tweet. "Edelen is the only candidate in the race presenting bold ideas for our future. He's our best choice for the Democratic nomination, hands down."

Super PACs are independent political action committees and can receive unlimited funds from corporations, unions or individuals. The organizations are forbidden from giving or working directly with political parties or candidates, however.

Robinson has, among other issues, spotlighted abortion by calling out Beshear for declining to comment for a Courier Journal story on running mate Jacqueline Coleman's self-described "pro-life" views.

"Why is (Andy Beshear) hiding from questions about his position on abortion, especially given the assault on women's reproductive rights in KY?" Robinson asked in a Feb. 19 tweet. "Yet another reason to vote for Adam Edelen in May."

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Beshear campaign manager Eric Hyers bristled at the super PAC's creation, saying it underscores why the attorney general called on his opponents to sign a pledge disavowing outside groups.

"Andy has called for a positive primary about how best to lift up working families, not tear down other Democrats," he said. "Adam Edelen has promised not to take any PAC money, but apparently thinks it is OK to accept millions of dollars of help from a super PAC. The only person who this helps is Matt Bevin."

Hyers bypassed the Courier Journal's questions about what role, if any, outside groups should play in political campaigns.

In 2015, the Democratic Attorneys General Association funneled in a little more than $1 million to assist Beshear when he ran for the state's top law enforcement post, according to records kept by the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Edelen campaign spokesman Matt Erwin also ignored certain questions, such as if his candidate knows either Robinson or Pederson. He stressed, however, that they are not working with Kentuckians for a Better Future.

"The campaign isn't accepting a dime from PACs and would never coordinate with a super PAC," Erwin said. "Coordinating with a super PAC is against Kentucky law."

Robinson also has taken aim at Adkins over abortion. He said it is clear the longtime legislator, who is a member of the bipartisan "pro-life" caucus, is "out-of-touch with Democratic values" because he voted for a bill that would outlaw abortion in Kentucky if the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision is overturned.

"I'm with the candidate who will stand for a woman's right to choose," Robinson said in a Feb. 15 tweet. "Let's elect Adam Edelen to be our nominee for governor."

Adkins said in a statement that "out-of-state elites will not decide this election." He said the 2019 contest will be defined by issues that matter to working-class Kentuckians.

"The wealthy and the well-connected already have the keys to the governor's mansion," Adkins said. "It's time we turn those keys over to everyday Kentuckians. That's what I am fighting for."

The rise and influence of super PACs has been debated at length across the country since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that caps on donations were unconstitutional.

In some cases, a super PAC can hurt the candidate it is supporting if it runs advertisements that are off message. But often, the groups are run by a candidate's former aide or associate.

Five years ago, for instance, Kentucky political strategist Scott Jennings — who writes a regular column for the Courier Journal — led a super PAC called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership that spent $7.4 million to help re-elect Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Jennings had worked on the GOP leader's 2002 campaign and generally kept the group's message close to the McConnell campaign's narrative.

State campaign finance records show Kentuckians for a Better Future didn't raise any money in the month that it was created in 2018.

The next finance report showing super PAC fundraising for the first three months of 2019 is due April 5. As of Tuesday, Kentuckians for a Better Future had not reported making any independent expenditures, according to state officials.

Beshear challenged Edelen and Adkins last month to sign a pledge promising not to run any negative TV or radio commercials. He explicitly wants his two rivals to condemn negative ads from third party or independent groups, such as Kentuckians for a Better Future.

Edelen and Adkins have rejected the attorney general's offer as self-serving, saying it would block them from criticizing him on the campaign trail.

Early polling suggests Beshear, son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, holds a commanding 55 percent among Democrats. The survey of 603 likely primary voters had Adkins at 17 percent and Edelen in third with 7 percent.

"At this point, polling is nothing but name recognition, but we're 60 days (out) and Edelen is in last place," said Briscoe, the Democratic campaign consultant. "One of the ways you can get back in it, potentially, is through a (super) PAC, and I would guess that's what they're banking on."

Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or pbailey@courierjournal.com. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/philb.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: How Kentucky governor's race is about to get more money – and turn ugly

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