People who know Rocky Adkins best know that beneath his awe-shucks, country boy persona is a keen political intellect that should have his opponents in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary plenty worried.
Growing up with a basketball under his arm, Adkins was a competitive and talented point guard who dribbled his way to an athletic scholarship at Morehead State University where he made an appearance in the NCAA tournament in his senior year.
He approaches politics with the same tenacity he brought to athletics. That’s why underestimating the sharpshooter from Sandy Hook would be costly for political opponents.
Perhaps no one is more attuned to state politics than Stephen Voss, the University of Kentucky political scientist who has been sharing his keen insights and intuitions with the Frankfort press corps for years. So, while some may have been shocked that Adkins raised a whopping $620,000 for his fledgling gubernatorial campaign in a matter of only eight weeks, Voss wasn’t.
As the longtime House majority floor leader, Adkins had forged strong relationships with movers and shakers throughout the state. Voss knew that. Voss also had seen an excitement for Adkins among politically active UK students.
Then, a few days ago, Adkins filed his first fundraising report with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. That report landed with a kaboom. Everyone took notice. In basketball parlance, Adkins proved himself a force from the perimeter – the perimeter being rural Kentucky.
While most folks had their eyes on Democrats Andy Beshear and Adam Edelen, Adkins was quietly at work, amassing his sizeable war chest that will only grow larger as the May 21 primary approaches, because, in politics, money begets money.
Indications at this point are that Adkins will be able to run shoulder-to-shoulder with Beshear and Edelen in terms of TV time.
Voss said the unknown had been whether Adkins would be able to raise enough money to get his message out. His donor list answered that question loud and clear.
“I think he has a shot,” Voss said this week.
Some GOP strategists have confided that Adkins would be the most worrisome Democrat for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in the November general election. Keep in mind that, by registration, Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Kentucky. Outside of Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky Democrats tend to be a conservative lot who routinely cross party lines in general elections to support GOP candidates who share their political views.
That may not be necessary if Adkins survives the primary.
In highlighting Adkins’ voting record, the organization Vote Smart points out that Adkins voted in favor of a bill last year that would prohibit abortions after 11 weeks and a bill the year before that would create a tiered system for distributing family planning funding.
Unlike other recent Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Adkins will have the support of the state’s coal industry. Adkins hammered out a long career in coal. And his first major endorsement came from former Gov. Paul Patton, who went into politics after a long and successful career in coal.
Adkins’ campaign finance report reflects strong support in rural communities. No city had a larger concentration of donors than Morehead, which, of course, is his home turf. Ashland had one of the largest concentrations as well, which, again, is his home turf. People in that section of the state watched Adkins grow up, both physically and politically. People there have long expected Adkins to be governor one day.
That’s why some of the region’s biggest names, including Patton and former Supreme Court Justice Janet Stumbo, are on his donor list. That list is also filled with regular Joes, including farmers, coal miners, construction workers, teachers, lawyers, business owners, engineers, nurses, doctors, insurance agents, students, homemakers, and retirees of every stripe.
The same is true of Beshear, the first Democrat to announce. He has amassed $1.16 million in contributions over the past six months. Edelen, who filed his candidacy papers on Monday, has only this week begun fundraising. He’s well-connected politically and is expected to pull together the funding needed to run a strong race.
The Democratic primary has the makings of nail-biter. But, in this matchup, don’t underestimate Adkins. No one will work harder than the sharpshooter from Sandy Hook.
Roger Alford is editor of Kentucky Today and a longtime political writer.