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Legal abortion has become fault line in Kentucky’s Democratic primary for governor

State Rep. Rocky Adkins breaks with much of his party by supporting bill banning most abortions after a heartbeat is detected

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

LOUISVILLE (CFP) — Rocky Adkins, the former Democratic leader of the Kentucky House, is among America’s rarest political species — a Democrat who opposes legal abortion. And that stance has become a clear fault line in the Democratic race for governor.

Kentucky State Rep. Rocky Adkins

Adkins is running in the May 20 primary against two Democrats who support legal abortion — Attorney General Andy Beshear and former State Auditor Adam Edelen — and the issue has taken on prominence not usually found in Democratic intra-party skirmishes.

“I am pro-life,” said Adkins, who represents a rural House district in eastern Kentucky, said during a recent debate. “You express the views of your constituents that you represent in the legislature for your votes, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Adkins is a member of the legislature’s Pro-Life Caucus. Earlier this year, he was one of 10 Democrats in the House who voted for Kentucky’s “heartbeat bill,” which would ban most abortions once the baby’s heartbeat can be detected.

That measure was signed into law by the man these Democrats all hope to replace, Republican Governor Matt Bevin, who has made his opposition to abortion a feature of his re-election campaign.

Edelen has denounced the new law as “an experiment by the radical right to eliminate this protection for women.” Beshear, who describes himself as “pro-choice,” has refused as attorney general to defend the new law against a legal challenge.

When the issue came up in a recent debate, Beshear observed that “the only person who is excited we’re having this conversation is Matt Bevin. This is all he’s going to talk about in the general election.”

A Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of Kentuckians thought abortion should be illegal in most cases, while only 36 percent supported legal abortion. Only four states — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia — are more pro-life.

Pew also found less support for abortion among people living in rural areas than in cities or suburbs. Edelen is from Lexington and Beshear is from Louisiville; Adkins is from Sandy Hook, population 600.

However, the issue of abortion cuts across Democratic politics in Kentucky in a way not seen in much of the rest of the country. When the heartbeat bill came up in the House earlier this year, only a minority of the Democratic caucus actively opposed the measure. Nineteen Democrats voted no, 10 voted yes — and 10 absented themselves rather than cast a vote.

The abortion crosscurrents are also visible in the Democratic race for governor.  Beshear’s running mate, Jacqueline Coleman, described herself as a “pro-life Democrat” when she ran for the legislature in 2014 from a rural seat, though she now says she supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion. By contrast, Adkins’s running mate, Stephanie Horne, who is from Louisville, supports legal abortion.

Edelen and his running mate, Gill Holland, both support legal abortion, which Edelen has been using in the campaign to draw a contrast with Beshear and Adkins.

While the general election politics in Kentucky would clearly favor a candidate who doesn’t support legal abortion, Democratic primary politics are perhaps another matter. Adkins has not emphasized the issue during the campaign, has said he would “follow the Constitution” and has tied his opposition to abortion to his support for pre-K funding and bills to strengthen adoption and foster care.

“I’ve also said that we need to put warm food on the table and a roof over these babies’ heads when they’re born,” Adkins said.

Should Adkins triumph in the primary and then win the general election, he would join Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who is running for re-election this fall, as the only Southern governors who oppose legal abortion.

Mississippi Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who is also running for governor in 2019, is also an abortion opponent.

The two other Southern Democratic governors, Roy Cooper in North Carolina and Ralph Northam in Virginia, both support legal abortion.

Cooper recently vetoed a bill that would have made it a crime for abortion doctors to kill babies born alive during an abortion procedure, saying a new law was not necessary.

Northam last year supported a bill that would have made it easier for women to obtain abortions in the third trimester, which failed to gain approval in the legislature.

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