POLITICS
11/11/2019 05:45 EST | Updated 11/14/2019 16:45 EST

Beating Mitch McConnell? Kentucky Democrats Have A Plan For That

A surprise victory in last week's governor's race may kickstart a long, slow turn away from the GOP in the Bluegrass.

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

HOPKINSVILLE, Kentucky — The confetti had barely hit the floor at Andy Beshear’s election night party on Tuesday when Democrats began proclaiming that his apparent defeat of unpopular GOP Gov. Matt Bevin should terrify Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

“Mitch McConnell did not go to bed happy last night,” Kentucky state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey said of the top U.S. Senate Republican, who hopes to win a seventh term in Washington a year from now.

“All I have to say is: Mitch, you’re next,” Amy McGrath, the retired Marine pilot who is running as a Democrat against McConnell, wrote in a fundraising email sent out just an hour after Beshear declared victory.

Republicans in the state declared McConnell safe as he’s ever been. Kentucky voters hadn’t rejected the GOP, they insisted, but the “bad apple” in Bevin. The GOP won every other race on the ballot Tuesday night, even one for attorney general, an office no Republican has held since 1948.

The dueling reactions in Kentucky mirrored the national mood. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee saw it as proof that “Democrats are ready to compete everywhere and win tough races in 2020,” while Texas Sen. John Cornyn shrugged Beshear’s victory off as “unrelated to national politics.” Pundits on deadline saw the result as either a sign that McConnell should worry, or a total anomaly for a Democratic Party with no future in a deep red state.

Both sides may be too sure of themselves.

McConnell is deeply unpopular in the Bluegrass, just as Bevin was — the same poll that considered Bevin the least popular GOP governor in the nation ranks McConnell as the lowest-rated member of the Senate. But these days, the overwhelming majority of Senate races are won by the same party the state voted for in the last presidential election — Kentuckians chose Trump by 30 points in 2016, and will almost certainly vote for him again. No Senate majority leader, meanwhile, has lost a bid for reelection since 1952. And Kentucky has been trending steadily more Republican over the three decades of McConnell’s career — its last Democratic senator was reelected in 1992, and it hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. 

Beshear’s victory also may not be as big of an anomaly as Republicans hope. The tone of conversations, both public and private, with Kentucky Democrats and activists changed after Tuesday: the nervy, almost forced optimism that barely masked a bleak outlook for the future found itself replaced by something close to real hope. While winning in Kentucky is still a long, uphill battle that requires nigh-perfect circumstances, they at least had proof of concept now. Beshear drew a map of Kentucky that, at least in the cities and suburbs, appeared similar to those of other states in the Trump era. And he did it all as an unapologetic Democrat. 

“This is the first time a modern Democrat beat a modern Republican in Kentucky,” said Dave Contarino, the executive director of Kentucky Family Values, a political action committee supported primarily by teachers and other labor unions. “This wasn’t some old-line, southern conservative Democrat. This was a pro-choice, pro-labor Democrat. I don’t want to overstate it, but it may suggest that we’re not as far off as some people think we are.”

Democrats probably won’t win a Senate seat next year. But a high-profile Senate race could further rejuvenate a party trying to prove it’s still alive.

*****

On the drive down Highway 68 near the Tennessee border, a hulking obelisk rises into the sunny sky to commemorate Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president who was born there in 1808. The monument went up a century later, during the Lost Cause years. It’s cast a shadow over Hopkinsville, one of the state’s Blackest cities, ever since.

There’s a pretty strong conventional wisdom in Kentucky politics that for Democrats, beating McConnell or any other statewide candidate would require running up huge margins in Louisville, Lexington — and, as U.S. Rep John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat, told me this summer, “the few other pockets” of the state “where there are lots of Democrats.”

“The people who’ve looked at it here have said, ‘A Democrat can win statewide, but it has to be a very surgical race,’” Yarmuth said. “And what they would say is, ‘You have to know exactly where your voters are, and you don’t waste any time on persuadables. You need to persuade the ones you know are going to vote for you [to] vote.’”

Bill Clark via Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stand during the National Anthem at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, on Aug. 6, 2016.

Even knowing that, the party has struggled to get some of its most likely supporters to the polls, in part because they haven’t focused on them, and that’s especially true for voters in places like Hopkinsville, a city where 30 percent of the population is Black. 

Black voters in Hopkinsville have proven their power before. In 2016, organized efforts to turnout Black voters powered Democrat Jeff Taylor to victory in a special election that made him the area’s first-ever Black state representative. But Taylor lost in 2018 by roughly 400 votes, a margin that he said could have been swung had either Black voters or registered Democrats turned out in heavier numbers. 

The Black precincts in Hopkinsville, Taylor said, routinely rank among the lowest of all of Kentucky’s in terms of turnout, a problem that Taylor chalks up largely to apathy — and a lack of belief, among Black voters there, that the Democrats have anything to offer them. 

In West Louisville — where nearly three-quarters of the city’s Black population lives, and where turnout numbers are also typically lower than in other parts of the city — one activist told me that Democrats “only come here when it’s election time,” and that “none of them have addressed anything” on issues like gun violence, mass incarceration, or other issues at the forefront of Black voters’ minds. In 2015, when Democrats lost the governor’s mansion for just the second time since 1971, many of the Blackest precincts in west Louisville had turnout rates 10 points lower than the countywide rate.

Neither the state nor national Democratic Party has “really invested in Black electoral work,” said Cassia Herron, the chairwoman of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots group that has more than 12,000 members across the state. “It always comes from somewhere else, if it comes at all.” 

This is the first time a modern Democrat beat a modern Republican in Kentucky. I don’t want to overstate it, but it may suggest that we’re not as far off as some people think we are.Dave Contarino, executive director of Kentucky Family Values

Heron, who is Black, recounted a recent conversation with a middle-aged Black man from west Louisville about November’s governor’s race. “He’s a barber who runs his own business and has a college education, and he doesn’t vote. And he doesn’t plan to vote,” Herron said. “If we’re not investing in people like him, we’re missing a huge opportunity. They could move the electorate, but we’re just making the assumption that they’re going to vote Democratic.”

Kentucky’s Black population is smaller than those in other southern states that have captured Democratic imaginations, but it’s still a powerful potential base. “When we show up to vote, the candidate we support wins,” Andre Carson, a Hopkinsville native who moved home three years ago and formed a group of local business leaders and residents to help bring more attention to the local Black community. 

“But we’ve got to see you after the election. We’ve got to see results,” Carson said. “[Black people] will come out and vote, but not in bunches for a guy they see once in three months, or if they don’t see results after the election.”

That Kentucky Democrats haven’t shown up or put in the work necessary to turn out potential supporters isn’t a critique unique to Black voters — it’s a common description of the party’s problems across the commonwealth, where cities haven’t delivered the sort of margins they have for Democrats elsewhere, suburban counties haven’t trended in Democrats’ direction as quickly as they have nationally, and former Democratic strongholds have abandoned the party completely.

During the governor’s race, the Beshear campaign, the Kentucky Democratic Party and the outside groups that supported them worked to change that. 

The KDP, under new chairman Ben Self, began rebuilding its infrastructure in 2017, after a bloodbath at the ballot box the year before nearly destroyed any hopes of a Democratic future in Kentucky, with the aim of building a “permanent campaign infrastructure” that would improve contact with voters, help more register to vote, drive them out once they did — and not immediately go away the minute a campaign cycle ended. Though they focused heavily on areas where Democrats had lost some standing, they also put an emphasis restating their case to base voters, too.

Across the state, Beshear’s campaign and Democratic Party canvassers combined to knock on more than 1 million doors, and in parts of Louisville, Beshear’s campaign alone made as many as four canvassing passes. McGarvey, the Democratic senate leader, called it “the greatest get-out-the-vote effort I’ve ever seen” in the city, and Beshear replicated the strategy elsewhere, in the mountains of Appalachia, the northern suburbs of Cincinnati, and the farthest reaches of western Kentucky.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Democrat Andy Beshear speaks to supporters after a daylong tour of Kentucky on the last night of the campaign for governor, in Louisville, Kentucky, Nov. 4, 2019. Beshear traveled the state as his opponent, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, welcomed President Donald Trump for a rally Monday night in Lexington.

Kentucky is also home to a number of grassroots organizations, new and old, that helped. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the grassroots group that has expanded across the state since it launched as an Appalachian-focused group 30 years ago, ran its own voter registration and canvassing drives. Teachers from KY 120 United, the group of 38,000 educators that sparked mass protests against Bevin last year, canvassed across the state; the Kentucky Education Association held events in nearly all 120 counties. Working America, the AFL-CIO’s campaign arm, said it knocked on more than 40,000 doors, talked to 13,500 voters and pushed its 114,000 members to vote through digital campaigns. For the first time in a long time, everyone from the state party to the campaign to the grassroots seemed to be on the same page.

Black voters weren’t the only focus, but they were a big one — in Hopkinsville, Taylor credited Beshear’s efforts to reach out to Black residents and organizations. And, Kentucky Family Values, which backed Beshear, helped register more than 7,500 new voters in Louisville, where it focused its efforts on the western part of the city. (It also knocked on more than 300,000 doors and made a half-million phone calls.)

Beshear also pledged to restore voting rights to 140,000 thousand ex-felons, a priority for civil rights groups in Kentucky, one of just three states that permanently bans them from voting. That policy has disenfranchised nearly one of every 11 voters in the state and had an especially large impact on Black adults ― 26 percent of whom are ineligible to vote, the highest rate in the nation.

It didn’t always work. Beshear’s margin in Christian County, where Hopkinsville is located, was barely better than Democrats had achieved four years ago. But in other places, the impact was evident, even if demographic and precinct turnout data isn’t yet available — and weeks before the election, yard signs supporting Beshear, or at least opposing Bevin, were prominently displayed across the city’s West End.

Turnout in the big cities dwarfed expectations, and boosted Beshear, who ran up a margin of nearly 135,000 votes in Lexington and Louisville alone — a huge performance relative to what Democrats have achieved there in recent election cycles. And with the help of state Rep. Rocky Adkins, a mountain populist who finished second to Beshear in the primary and campaigned alongside him during the general, Beshear won parts of Appalachia that some Democrats thought were gone for good. 

*****

If success in gubernatorial contests translated directly to victories in Senate races, McConnell never would’ve made it to Washington. Democrats have now won 11 of the past 13 governor’s races, but they’ve lost eight consecutive Senate races since 1992, and haven’t come within 100,000 votes of McConnell since 1990.

It’s understandable that Republicans are skeptical that any of what Beshear built or accomplished in 2019 will affect 2020. But Democrats and their allies outside the party swear its replicable — in September, Self told me over coffee in his Frankfort office that the party’s aim was to roll staff, data and infrastructure straight from the governor’s race into the battle with McConnell. 

Some parts of Beshear’s map — especially the swaths of blue in southern Appalachia — may not translate to a federal race when Trump, who remains popular in Kentucky, replaces Bevin on top of the ballot. But Democrats hope that some of it will. Beshear won two northern Kentucky counties, just outside Cincinnati, plus Warren County in the west and Scott County just north of Lexington — four well-populated areas that have been solid red for decades but all look like the type of suburbs that have been trending away from the GOP and toward Democrats throughout the Trump era. The suburban east end of Louisville, which Republicans used to count on, has now delivered huge victories for Democrats in both 2018 and 2019. 

Bevin’s late-stage attempts to tie himself to Trump may have been a costly mistake.

“The nationalizing of the campaign cost [Bevin] in the suburbs,” Contarino, the executive director of Kentucky Family Values, said. “And McConnell has a similar problem.” 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., as he is brought onstage during a campaign rally in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 4, 2019.

Warren County may not be a fluke. In 2018, Western Kentucky University history professor Patti Minter won a state House race there, and though Democrats have held her district for four decades, she ran an energetic campaign that supported LGBTQ rights, swore off corporate campaign donations, and never apologized for its outward progressivism. Some Democrats feared she’d cost them the seat; instead, she won by seven points. 

For the last three years, Democrats and their allies in Kentucky have been drawing lessons primarily from losses. But Minter’s win, followed by Beshear’s, in a county Democrats once couldn’t fathom would go their way generated hope that they can replicate the success, especially given that Trump isn’t as popular in Kentucky as he once was: Trump’s net approval rating, according to Morning Consult, has dropped 23 points in Kentucky since the beginning of his administration, from plus-34 to just plus-11. Nearly half of Kentuckians said they disapproved of the president in October.

Heading into 2020, the dynamics in Kentucky still favor McConnell, barring a massive and unexpected change. And they’ll probably benefit Republicans in the state for at least another decade, said Scott Lasley, a Western Kentucky University political scientist and district vice chairman in the state GOP. Republicans hold supermajorities in both state legislative chambers, and Lasley’s guess is that it could take 30 years for Democrats to regain control of either. That’s not just GOP sentiment: “We can get it back,” Jeff Taylor, the former lawmaker from Hopkinsville, said of the state legislature, sounding as if he was trying to convince himself more than me. “But this is not happening overnight. It’s going to be a long time.”

That sort of shift has happened before. Just ask McConnell, who has spent his 35 years in the Senate slowly and steadily building the Kentucky GOP into the machine it is today.

“When I first started coming to western Kentucky frequently, the ratio in this state was two-and-a-half to one in favor of registered Democrats. Now it’s about 1.3 to 1 Democrat,” McConnell recounted at an event this spring. “Back then,” he continued, “there wasn’t one solitary [GOP] state senator or representative” in far western Kentucky. “Today, there is not a single Democratic state representative or state senator in that area. We’ve come a long way together. A long way.”

McConnell’s long Bluegrass slog is proof that Democrats’ fight against the state party he has built will take more than one election to complete ― as Self, the party chairman, put it, Democrats are “looking not just toward the next election, but toward the next 20 years.”

We still have a few scores to settle.Nema Brewer, public school employee and organizer of Kentucky's teacher movement

The race against McConnell will bring tens of millions of dollars into Kentucky — the national desire among progressive small dollar donors and the Democratic Party to knock off the country’s most unpopular Senator means McGrath or any other candidate could raise $50 million or more, especially if the race proves competitive. The cash and enthusiasm that comes with a high-profile Senate race could be vital to Kentucky Democrats’ efforts to restructure their party and start winning legislative seats again, as down-ballot candidates draft off the hope, energy and resources of the big-time Senate race — just as Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign did in Texas, where Democrats now have a chance to seize majority control of the state legislature.

“We need to take every cent that comes here for the McConnell race, and use it to build up the grassroots,” one Kentucky Dem told me. “We need to use it to elect state legislative and city council candidates, and let that filter up to Amy McGrath. And if she wins, great.”

That’s not just a big priority for the party, but to many of the activists who have helped boost it from the outside: “We still have a few scores to settle,” Nema Brewer, the public school employee behind the group that organized Kentucky’s teacher protests and turned educators into a powerful political force, said Wednesday of the teachers’ plans for future electoral work. As the teachers pushed back against GOP legislators who forced through the pension reform and school budget cuts that enraged educators and organized workers, “there were a few folks who were really ugly to us,” Brewer said. “And we’ve got a long memory.”

*****

In early September, as I traversed Kentucky in search of any sign of a progressive pulse, I visited Minter in Bowling Green, where the Western Kentucky University history teacher has attempted to push her city — and by extension her state — forward on LGBTQ rights.

Since 2013, Minter has gathered activists in Room 207 of Cherry Hall, the campus building where she teaches, for monthly meetings aimed at persuading the Bowling Green city council to pass a fairness ordinance — the name in Kentucky for an official measure to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Friday, April 13, 2018 photo, teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state capitol in Frankfort during a rally for increased education funding. Americans overwhelmingly believe teachers don't make enough money, and half say they'd support paying higher taxes to give educators a raise.

The dozen activists in attendance were in the final planning stages, that night, for Bowling Green’s third annual Pride festival. But their attention was also focused across the state on Georgetown, a suburb of Lexington in Scott County, which had long supported Republicans but where the city council was voting on a fairness ordinance.

The ordinance had been a top priority for organizers in Georgetown, I learned a few days earlier at a similar meeting there, after the city council voted it down by a single vote two years prior. They had spent the time since trying to persuade local residents and legislators to reconsider.

Not so long ago, LGBTQ issues were untouchable for Democrats in Kentucky — in 2015, many Democrats thought that the national furor over Rowan County clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to sign same-sex marriage licenses had helped drive Republicans to the polls and elect Bevin governor. But now Georgetown was on the cusp of becoming the 10th Kentucky city to pass a fairness ordinance in the last five years; Democrats and LGBTQ activists had rallied, in 2018, to defeat Davis in her bid for reelection.

Minter, meanwhile, had won election to her state house seat in Bowling Green — the seat of traditionally red Warren County — in 2018 just three weeks after marching with drag queens.

Even in this deep red state where Democrats had lost almost everything, there were pockets where the fight to loosen the GOP’s grip on the Bluegrass was long underway. 

Minter’s foot tapped nervously on the hard tile floors of the empty hallway as she described how she won — recruited into the race by a new group that trains women to run for office, doubted by consultants, sure the whole time that Bowling Green “wasn’t as conservative” as everyone else claimed. Then a cheer went up in Room 207, and Minter turned and bolted back to the doorway.

“Did we just win?” she shouted into the room. “We won!” 

Two months later, Rowan, Scott and Warren counties all voted for Andy Beshear.

This piece has been updated with final voter contact numbers from Working America. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Kentucky last elected a Democratic senator in 1988. However, Sen. Wendell Ford (D) was reelected in 1992, meaning Democrats have lost eight consecutive Senate races since then.