Democrats who think they can win simply by highlighting the extremism of Republicans—a popular notion as Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Senator Ted Cruz rank high in Republican presidential polls—would do well to consider the case of Kentucky.
Yes, Kentucky—where cautious Democrats just clashed with extremist Republicans. In an exceptionally low-turnout election, in which two-thirds of eligible voters failed to cast ballots, the Republicans prevailed.
On an off-year election day that was erred on the dismal side for Democrats—they failed in a critical struggle to gain control of the Virginia legislature and suffered setbacks elsewhere—voter anger was evident in much of the country. Frustration with politics as usual benefited issue-focused reformers—Ohio voters banned gerrymandering, Maine voters strengthened their clean-elections law and Seattle voters backed an innovative public-financing initiative. Disdain for status-quo politics also helped proud radicals such as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who was leading in a race for a second term. But establishment Democrats, who had trouble stirring excitement, suffered as dismal turnout rates skewed key contests toward the right. That was true in Virginia, where Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe failed in a bid to get a legislature he could work with on issues such as expanding Medicaid and implementing gun control. And that was particularly true in Kentucky, a state where history and the narrow calculations of mainstream Democrats suggested the party had significant advantages.
Democrats have dominated Kentucky statehouse politics with only a few exceptions since the end of the Civil War. Even as other border states were following Southern states into the Republican fold, and even as Republicans were winning federal elections in Kentucky, Democrats (some of a populist persuasion, some with strong personal followings) have held their own in state races. The party has lost Kentucky’s governorship in only two elections over the past 70 years. They held it even in 2011, just after the 2010 Republican-wave election that saw the GOP take control of statehouses in far bluer states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan.
This year, Kentucky Democrats took the “safe” route. They discouraged populists such as former Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo, a coal-country physician who talked of running “a campaign for the soul of our Democratic Party,” and settled on state Attorney General Jack Conway, who lost a 2010 Senate race to Republican Rand Paul. Conway had plenty of money, plenty of statewide name recognition and the solid record of outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Beshear to run on. Conway repeated his talking points and presented himself as a suitably experienced, if drably managerial, successor to the popular Beshear. But it wasn’t enough. Conway lost. Badly.
And Conway did not lose to just any Republican.
The Democratic bleeding in a particularly low-turnout election did not stop at the top of the ticket. In a down-ballot races, where Kentucky Democrats have traditionally been at their strongest, the party lost key races. Of particular note was the defeat of state Auditor Adam Edelen, the top choice of state and national Democrats to challenge Republican Senator Rand Paul next year.
The results from Kentucky should unsettle Democrats for two reasons:
1. They provide another reminder that the polarization of politics at the national level is altering the dynamics of state races. Lines of division are sharper, national issues have become local issues, and this has made it dramatically harder for Democrats seeking statehouse posts to distinguish themselves from Democrats in Washington. In some states, such as New Hampshire and Connecticut, that has proven to be a benefit. But in others, the nationalization of politics presents a serious challenge. Kentucky voters have not backed a Democrat for president since 1996, yet Democrats won gubernatorial contests in 1999, 2007 and 2011. This year, their luck ran out. Democrats had a top-tier candidate for governor who was socially and economically moderate, while the Republican nominee was a controversial figure who just last year mounted a far-right primary challenge to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Yet, the Democrat won just 44 percent of the vote.
2. They signal that simply identifying a Republican as extreme is not necessarily enough to attract the votes of independents and moderate Republicans. The Democratic nominee in Kentucky, Conway, was a predictable insider who eschewed populist appeals. He characterized the race as a contest “between the mainstream and the extreme.” That was a fair assessment. Bevin, a government-bashing millionaire, promised to gut successful healthcare programs and impose anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation. He hailed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as a role model and talked up Carson as an ideal presidential contender. Bevin embraced Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Throughout a campaign in which he first challenged the Republican establishment (winning the GOP gubernatorial primary by just 83 votes) and then statehouse Democrats, Bevin courted controversy, widened divisions and stirred passions. Yet he won by a 53-44 margin.
Republicans will read too much into the results from Kentucky and claim that they provide an indication of what can be expected in the 2016 presidential contest. That’s too simplistic. Democrats were not wiped out; Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the party’s nominee in a high-profile 2014 challenge to McConnell, won with relative ease. And Democratic prospects for 2016 were always slim in a state that gave President Obama just 38 percent of the vote in 2012, and that has not given a Democratic presidential nominee a majority vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
However, Democrats make a mistake if they read too little into the results from Kentucky. The party’s gubernatorial candidate ran a circumspect campaign—so much so that The Cincinnati Enquirer, in endorsing Conway, described his plans as “realistically cautious.” Conway even attacked Bevin for supporting medical marijuana. And Conway was tepid on economic issues, counting on Kentuckians to choose the status quo over the populist promise of change for the better. That was a bad bet. This is a volatile political season—as the 2016 presidential race has confirmed. Bevin was the more volatile contender in Kentucky, the more controversial candidate, the guy who seemed most likely to shake things up, and he won.
Would Kentucky Democrats have run better if they had gone big? Would they have excited more voters if, in addition to proposing to maintain that which is working, they had promised to do a whole lot more to address urban and rural poverty, raise wages, and upset economic calculus that invariably favors the one percent over the 99 percent?
Would Kentucky Democrats have done better if they had run an unapologetic economic populist who angrily objected to a millionaire Republican’s proposals to make it harder for the sick to get health care? Is it just possible that an edgier appeal might have mobilized and excited Democratic base voters in the same way that Bevin and his ticket mates mobilized and excited their base?
There are no guarantees in politics. Personal, historical, and regional factors come into play, and often change the dynamics. But one number is worth noting: Turnout for this high-stakes election in Kentucky was 30.7 percent. The overwhelming majority of eligible voters did not participate in an election that reshaped the political calculus in the state—moving the state far to the right on economic and social issues, setting the stage for the loss of access to healthcare for hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians, opening the way for an assault on collective-bargaining rights.
When base voters are unenthusiastic, when turnout is low, that’s generally bad news for Democrats.
The bad news was writ large across Kentucky in November, 2015.
The question is whether Democrats will take the necessary steps to assure that it is not writ large across the nation in November 2016. And, yes, at the risk of being tedious about this, the starting point really is with a return to a 50-state strategy that respects every region of the country and that recognizes the vital importance of voter registration, voter mobilization, voter turnout, and the economic and social justice messages that have always been the best tools for inspiring voters who might otherwise stay home to be first in line at the polls.