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Republican Red Bluegrass State

Colin Morris and Daniel Hurt

Kentucky Democrats reorganizing their beleaguered party shouldn’t look to Georgia or Arizona for guidance, according to a pair of young western Kentucky activists.

“Georgia and Arizona have demographic advantages for Democrats that we don’t have in Kentucky,” said Collin Morris, 24, of Owensboro, a member of the party’s state central executive committee.

“Georgia has a large Black population, and they carried the weight for us. In Arizona, it was a significant Hispanic population that turned out huge for Joe Biden and Mark Kelly. We don’t have those advantages here. So the Kentucky Democratic Party has to think innovatively and do things that have never been done before.”

Outgoing committee member Daniel Hurt, 27, agrees. “Based on demographics and voter registration numbers, I don’t know where else in the country Kentucky Democrats can look for examples of success at flipping a state like ours from red to blue,” said Hurt, who lives in Grand Rivers. “But, oh, Lord, I would love to see us turn it around.”

Hurt suggested that demographically, culturally, and politically, neighboring West Virginia is probably the state most similar to Kentucky, which is more than 87 percent white, mostly rural, and home to a slew of white conservative evangelicals, a big chunk of the Donald Trump-GOP base nationwide.

Because it is so like the Bluegrass State, the Mountain State might not be a good model for the KDP either, according to Hurt. While Trump won Kentucky again in November — again pocketing 118 of 120 counties — his victory margins were evenwider in nearly 94-percent white, largely non-urban, deeply conservative and strongly evangelical West Virginia, where he carried every county in 2016 and 2020.

Beyond Louisville and Lexington, most parts of Kentucky are deeply-dyed Republican Red from Jordan to Jenkins.

“But they do have Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator, and we’ve got Andy Beshear, a Democratic governor,” Hurt said.

Anyway, Morris conceded that “flipping Kentucky from deep red to purple or to blue” any time soon will be a tall order. Hurt agrees. (Last year, too, Sen. Mitch McConnell and five of the state’s six Republican congressmen cruised to reelection. The GOP added to its super-majorities in the state House and Senate, to boot.)

Hence, Morris said the Democrats must think long-term like the Republicans did, but with a decidedly different appeal to voters. In the 1960s and 1970s, the GOP, which began in the 1850s as an anti-slavery party, swerved rightward and started playing the race card. Republicans cried “states’ rights” and adopted the “Southern Strategy,” a plan calculated to win over erstwhile Dixie Democratic whites who were angry over their party’s embrace of landmark federal civil rights legislation.

It took longer for border state Kentucky whites to fall in line with whites in the once Democratic “Solid South,” whose massive defection to the GOP was one of the most significant shifts in party loyalties in U.S. history. Beyond Louisville and Lexington, most parts of Kentucky are deeply-dyed Republican Red from Jordan to Jenkins.

Kentucky Not a Red State

Charles Booker

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan took the Southern strategy nationwide with his thinly-veiled racist rhetoric, notably the notorious myth of the “welfare queen.” Trump turned Reagan’s dog whistle into a bullhorn, overtly pandering to racial, religious and ethnic prejudice. “Now with the Republicans it’s also anti-Hispanic immigrants and anti-Islam,” Morris said.

He says the KDP’s long-haul effort should include sharply focusing on better marketing the party, especially through social media. “The Second District, where I live, has the highest percentage of voters with an active Facebook profile of any district in the country.”

Morris said that with county Facebook pages coordinated from KDP headquarters in Frankfort, “you could push the party’s message directly to voters every day, aid local candidates and electeds, and even discuss local issues.” He added that Facebook is a good way “to prop up local candidates and build a bench for future races.”

In addition, he and Hurt say that in rural counties especially, the Democrats ought to push harder for better internet service, an issue that cuts across party lines. “Many counties have only one or two internet providers, and the speeds are so slow they can’t even download an email,” Morris said. “You could have Gov. Beshear, or any candidate or office-holder, go on Facebook and talk about the need for better internet service.”

Added Hurt: “It’s ridiculous that in 2021, you can go into the McDonald’s in Marion [the Crittenden County seat] and find kids doing their homework because they don’t have good internet service at home. Besides, you’re not going to get new businesses or industry in rural Kentucky without better broadband.”

Expanding rural broadband is a plank in the Contract for Rural & Working America, an 11-point plan which KDP executive committee member Hank Linderman of Grayson County and others are championing:

“The internet is now a requirement for daily life, like water and power. We must bring the internet to every place Americans live and work – this will improve education and provide business opportunities that are currently impossible. Construction of this new infrastructure will provide jobs as well. This must be a national project, like Rural Electrification (1936) or the creation of the Federal Interstate System (1956), and it must be administered by a Federal agency, like the United States Postal Service. Additionally, we need higher standards for wireless carriers. Extensive sections of rural America are without any coverage. Wireless providers that benefit from doing business in cities must up their game in Rural America, or other ways of providing coverage must be found.”

Democrats should stop trying to out-Republican the Republicans on social issues like abortion, which turn out evangelicals on election day but turn off moderates and progressives.

Meanwhile, Hurt said the Democrats should stop trying to out-Republican the Republicans on social issues like abortion, which turn out evangelicals on election day but turn off moderates and progressives. “We need to embrace the Christian vision of Bishop William Barber [co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival] when he talks about ‘the weighty matters of the law’ – when I was homeless, did you find me a place to live? When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was in jail, did you visit me?

“Donald Trump embraces a perverse form of politics and religion that’s ‘every man for himself.’ It’s the selfish, social Darwinist version of capitalism that Ayn Rand preached, and she was an atheist.”

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While Hurt is all in for rebuilding his party, he said its progressive and moderate-conservative wings will probably have a tough time agreeing on the best way to do it “because those who believe one way or another believe strongly in their positions.

“The party will have to figure out whether it’s better to look for new voters or to try to win back voters. Unfortunately there is no good answer to that question, but you could do a combination of both.”

Hurt likes to quote former British Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair: “I learned that if it’s a fight between the populism of the left and the populism of the right, the right will always win. That is why the only way to defeat … [right-wing populism] is to put a rational politics in its place. That is why we need to have a different type of dialogue with people. Switch the conversation to a different set of challenges, and be proud of the fact you’re prepared to talk to people who disagree.”

Hurt said the question of which way the KDP should go is likely to arise sooner than later. More than a few Democrats believe the party has at least a shot at unseating Sen. Rand Paul next year. They think — or hope — that Paul’s hard-right views, and his belittling the popular Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical experts over masking and other precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic, are too extreme for Kentucky.

Thus far, no Democratic hats are in the ring. But former state Rep. Charles Booker of Louisville has started an exploratory committee and is sending out fundraising emails. On Sunday, Vermont Sen. Berlie Sanders joined Booker in Louisville for a “Rally for Kentucky’s Working Class” which looked like a campaign event. 

Booker has nailed together a platform that is clearly progressive. Hence, some Democrats worry that he’s too liberal to win in Kentucky and that Paul will beat him so decisively that the party will lose even more seats in the legislature. (The whole House and half the Senate must face the voters.) 

Because Booker is African American, the Republicans are likely to resort to more race-based dog whistle politics, Hurt said. “I agree with an outgoing Democratic county chair in western Kentucky who says that the Republicans will show that same commercial that Mitch McConnell had last year — the one that showed the statues being torn down and the riots — though most people protested in a peaceful way.

“The Lee Atwater-style Republican consultants will go to work painting Charles Booker as a scary or angry Black man and will use that same racism they always use – that stereotypical Black man that whites are afraid of. It feeds into the narrative for people who already don’t like Democrats. It will stir up the hate and divisiveness that seem to be the motivation behind so many Republican voters.”

Republicans hotly deny that they, their party, Kentucky, or the country is racist. In Kentucky, they point to Daniel Cameron who got elected attorney general in 2020 and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who won as Gov. Matt Bevin’s running mate in 2015, and State. Sen. Ralph Alvarado, Bevin’s pick for lieutenant governor in 2019. Cameron and Hampton are Black; Alvarado is Hispanic.

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“Cameron ran as a pro-Trump conservative – he ran like [African American Republican Sen.] Tim Scott of South Carolina, who said that America is not a racist country, even in the face of all these injustices like the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others,” Hurt said. “There is definitely racism in Kentucky and the country. It is deep seated and has been here a long time.”

Alvarado, like Cameron and Hampton, never missed a chance to burnish conservative and Trumpian creds. “There is this double standard with Republicans – as long as minority candidates support the white establishment and think everything is sunshine and rainbows, the Republicans will nominate them and they can win statewide,” Hurt said.

“But if minority candidates like Booker don’t support that white establishment position, the Republicans will depict them as awful and dangerous.”

Morris is glad Booker seems set to run. “For the first time, we are going to get to test the long-debated question of whether a progressive can win in Kentucky through a mass mobilization of disillusioned voters who have never been involved in the political process before.”

Last year, McConnell routed Democrat Amy McGrath by more than 417,000 votes. Though Team Mitch branded her a fan of radical socialism, she ran as a moderate.

“If Charles loses worse than Amy, and I don’t think he will, and we find out that Kentucky wasn’t ready for Charles when it should have been, then we will still have to focus on a long-term strategy, which also includes voter registration and gaining voters and defining what it means to be a Kentucky Democrat,” Morris said.

Like Morris, Hurt is a progressive. “But don’t be surprised if an alternative candidate emerges,” said Hurt. “A lot of Democrats think Booker can’t get elected, or they prefer a moderate or conservative candidate.”

There’s been speculation that the moderate-to-conservative Rocky Adkins might run. Adkins was a longtime Democratic leader in the House who came in second to Beshear in the 2019 Democratic gubernatorial primary. The governor made him a senior advisor.

“The party establishment wants an electable candidate, and they don’t think that’s Charles Booker,” Hurt said. “We’ve heard oftentimes that progressive Democratic candidates don’t get a chance to run. Well, if Charles Booker is it, you’re really going to have one and the election will go a long way toward determining if a progressive candidate can win a statewide race in Kentucky.”

McGrath beat Booker by a little over 15,000 votes in last year’s Senate primary, which included two other candidates. McGrath was a long-shot against the six-term McConnell. Booker—indeed any Democrat—will have a steep hill to climb to top Paul, who is seeking his third term.

“McGrath’s loss to McConnell means a hard road ahead for Booker,” Hurt said. “She tried to come off as more moderate and reach out to Republican voters. Booker might seek to find new voters who might vote progressive. Maybe there are some Republican voters who will hear his message and because of its brightness and newness might come on board.”

Nonetheless, Hurt is pessimistic about Booker’s chances. “But in the Bible, Ezekiel makes the case for his values even though the people of the area are not going to support what he says. There is honor in making the case not just to win. It’s the honor of making the case and representing your values.

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“One of the things I admire most about Charles Booker is his passion and determination, and maybe that’s what we’ve been missing in a lot of candidates and maybe he can prove the cynics wrong. But given the way Kentucky is, it’s hard not to be a little cynical about his chances of winning.”

Berry Craig