As recently as this fall, Adam Edelen was considered a rising star in the Kentucky Democratic Party — the type of candidate destined for higher-profile posts. But despite a notable term in office, the state auditor was not reelected in November.
Now he’s planning a hiatus from politics. While he’s out of elected office, he said the state Democratic Party needs to take a hard look at its campaign strategies.
“Going forward, Democrats have got to understand that we’re the minority party in Kentucky now. There’s no question,” Edelen said last week in an interview with Kentucky Public Radio.
“As a result, we’ve got to restructure and regroup and do what effective minority opposition parties do, and that is, cooperate when we think the party in power is right and offer principled opposition when we think the party in power is wrong.”
In November, Edelen lost to Republican state Rep. Mike Harmon despite a string of high-profile investigations he conducted as auditor. State political observers deemed the election result a major upset.
During his first weeks in office, Edelen investigated former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer’s office, discovering corruption and misspent funds; Farmer ended up in prison. Edelen also conducted investigations into Kentucky’s special taxing districts and discovered more than 3,000 untested rape kits in Kentucky law enforcement evidence lockers.
Edelen blamed the outcome of his race on fellow Democrat Jack Conway’s weak gubernatorial campaign trickling down the ballot.
“This election wasn’t about the auditor’s race at all, this was about party,” Edelen said. “I’ve made peace with that, and I think everybody acknowledges that to be to case.”
Harmon will be the first Republican state auditor since 1970.
Gov. Matt Bevin, who assumed his first political office earlier this month, trounced Conway in the election; his campaign rode a wave of social conservative momentum — evidenced by the Kim Davis same-sex marriage license episode — in an increasingly Republican political atmosphere.
“We ran a campaign based solely on communicating Matt Bevin’s number of shortcomings in terms of being governor,” Edelen said of Democrats’ campaigns.
“Ultimately, while I think that people listened to that, I think they responded to a more positive agenda, a more positive message. And while I passionately disagree with most of the planks on Gov. Bevin’s campaign, there’s no mistake that he got out and he campaigned on what he wanted to do.”
Edelen was recently considered to be a contender to unseat U.S. Sen. Rand Paul during next year’s election. But now Edelen says he will not run. Instead, he’ll return to the private sector, where he last worked as a business consultant.
“I enjoyed being in the private sector before I came into government. It’s a place where effort affects outcome, which isn’t always the case here in government,” Edelen said.
Edelen, 41, had an astronomical ascent in Kentucky politics. At 21, he was an aide to Gov. Paul Patton, making him one of the youngest staffers to serve a sitting governor. He also served as director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and chief of staff to former Gov. Steve Beshear before being elected state auditor in 2011.
Edelen came to political prominence at a time when Democrats were on top, but the party has ceded much control to Republicans over the course of his career.
In 1999, the GOP took control of the state Senate for the first time in history after two lawmakers switched their party affiliation to Republican. Then in 2003 and again this year, the state elected Republicans to the governor’s mansion. Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, elected in 2003, was the first Republican elected to the post since 1971.
And now, Democrats are perilously close to losing control of the state House for the first time in nearly 100 years.
Edelen said he’ll run for public office again, but for the time being he said he will return to Lexington to work as a business consultant and coach youth baseball.
“I’m honestly ready to get out of the scene a little bit and recharge,” Edelen said. “And when the time’s right, I’ll come back.”
Although he plans on running for office again, Edelen said it’s unlikely he’ll ever run for a down-ballot office — such as auditor — again.
“I’ve had enough of being in elections where your ability to control your own destiny is severely limited,” Edelen said.