It’s a tough time to be a Kentucky Democrat. We’ve lost the state House of Representatives—badly and for the first time more than a century. Just look at this .gif of the Eastern Kentucky vote in 2008, 2012, and 2016.
We have, as a national party, made ideological commitments to a multiracial, inclusive politics that has not translated well to a pretty rural, mostly white, mostly Christian Kentucky. And, by “not translated well” I mean, “Holy smokes, that was brutal.”
Meanwhile, our commitments to equality based on race, sexual orientation, gender, and national origin are non-negotiable. Let me put it this way: there will never be a moment that the KKK plans a celebration parade for a Democrat if I have anything to say about what being a Democrat means.
With a national party building a young, multiracial, multiethnic, cosmopolitan coalition of voters, Kentucky Democrats find ourselves in what Ulysses McGill might call a “tight spot.”
So, what are Kentucky Democrats to do? This is what we do. Here is my four-step plan to fight.
STEP 1: LOSE
You guys, we are going to lose so hard. I mean, we already lost hard, but we are going to keep losing hard. We are going to lose more going forward than we have in the past. In Kentucky, the way to win is to challenge every state House seat, every state Senate seat, every Congressional seat, every statewide office every time. We run everywhere. Every time. Again and again. And we're going to lose terribly. It's going to be painful, occasionally embarrassing, and seemingly futile.
And yet, these losing campaigns and candidates are our only hope. These fearless losers will be the ones showing up knowing they’re going to lose and fighting anyway. They will be the ones having tough conversations with neighbors and church members about their values, illustrating in word and action how their Christian faith informs their commitment to Democratic principles.
Step 2: Run Everywhere, Every time.
In Kentucky, the way to win is to challenge every state House seat, every state Senate seat, every Congressional seat, every statewide office every time. We run everywhere. Every time. Again and again. This year, two Republican congressmen ran unopposed. In 100 state House races, 64 were contested and 11 Democrats ran unopposed while 25 Republicans ran unopposed. (You can see the full results here. Pay special attention to those House races where Republicans ran unopposed. Do you live there? This essay is especially for you.)
We have to begin to compete everywhere. Every race that is unopposed is a race in which voters are hearing no counterargument, engaging in no conversation. No one is offering those voters a separate vision of how we can move forward as a Commonwealth and nation than the one offered by the unopposed Republican.
For the national party, waiting for the demographics to catch up with your ideological commitments may be a winning strategy. In Kentucky, we can take no comfort in demographics. Our mostly white, mostly Christian neighbors are mostly going to get older. Heck, unlike most states, we can’t even count on our millennials to vote Democrat.
And, even if we could count on demographics, that’s still not the way to win. The way to win is to engage with our neighbors. To keep talking, advocating, listening, learning, shaking hands, building trust, and being helpful. We keep showing up. We fight everywhere for the hearts and confidence and votes of our neighbors. Not because we can win this next election or the one after that, but because we owe it to our neighbors to fight and our vision of the future compels it.
Though we may not intend it, when the Democratic Party fails to contest a race, we risk communicating to voters that we do not believe they or their votes are worth fighting for. That’s the wrong message to send to big chunks of our state for two reasons: 1) it’s not true, of course, and 2) it’s bad politics.
As Democrats, we support raising the minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations, and paid sick-leave for all workers. We know that workers benefit in higher wages and safer workplaces when they are represented by unions and believe that any worker who benefits from union negotiations ought to also pay dues to the benefit negotiating those better wages and better working conditions. Let's take our case to our neighbors everywhere across Kentucky.
As Democrats, we are proud of our President, Democrats in Congress and former Governor Steve Beshear for expanding access to affordable healthcare to tens of thousands of Kentuckians who desperately needed it. The Affordable Care Act has been a tremendous benefit to Kentucky and Kentuckians. But, our work is not over! Still more people need coverage and we are committed to reducing cost and expanding coverage.
Step 3: Keep Losing
In case it’s not clear: I understand that the 25 people who could have run against these unchallenged Republicans would have lost. Badly.
And, wow, the two Democrats that could have run against Brett Guthrie and Hal Rogers? Incinerated. Dust.
We don't have any other choice but to fight and lose. We need candidates willing to stand up across Kentucky and say that the values they learned in Sunday School—inclusion, fair play, welcoming the stranger, caring for the needy—are the same values that inform their position on making taxes less regressive, ensuring that everyone that works makes a living wage, negotiating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in Kentucky, expanding access to affordable healthcare to everyone.
Look, I understand that for some voters are never going to be for you if you’re not in favor of banning access to safe abortions and banning gay marriage. But, I don’t think that’s most voters. I especially don’t think that’s most voters after we’ve shown them our hearts and guts in race after race. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Democratic Party’s (non-negotiable) positions on these two issues will doom Kentucky Democrats to a century in the minority in Frankfort. I don’t think so, but maybe.
What I think is more likely is that authentic candidates unwilling to compromise on core Democratic principles will begin to rebuild Democratic power slowly, one campaign at a time. This progress will be painfully slow for many Kentuckians who will be hurt by Republicans’ efforts to weaken unions, restrict voting rights, reduce state revenues by cutting taxes on the wealthy, roll back protections for the LGBTQ community, privatize public education, and limit Kentuckians’ access to trial by jury. But, we will make progress.
I want to be super-clear on this: I don't think voters who vote "against their self-interest" are to blame. Part of a commitment to democracy is a belief that all voters are smart enough to decide what's important to them and what's in their best interest. I don't think voters who voted for Trump are bigots or racists or Islamaphobes (unless, of course, they are). Voters don't owe the Democratic Party anything and in places in the state where we ceded a full 25% of the House races without opposition, I understand the sentiment that Democrats have abandoned those places and don't care. Democrats have lost the credibility to cry, "But they're voting against their self-interest!" when across large swaths of the Commonwealth we've played virtually no role in helping to frame our neighbors' "self-interest" within a larger web of policy considerations.
I am convinced: there is nothing about the Democratic Party’s national commitments and platform that prevents Democrats from winning in mostly rural, mostly white, mostly Christian Kentucky. By showing up, listening, learning, advocating, and arguing—even where we’re going to lose, heck, especially where we’re going to lose—Democrats will win in Kentucky again.
Step Four: Organize and Train
This is going to be a long, long slog and to do it the Kentucky Democratic Party must commit to building an infrastructure to train candidates, amateur campaign managers, and volunteer campaign workers. Democratic grassroots in Kentucky are energized today like they haven't been in years. We understand: there is no one coming. It is up to us. The KDP must harness that grassroots energy and give its activists the tools they need to organize, fund, and execute campaigns across the state.
One recent graduate of the Emerge Kentucky program, McKenzie Cantrell, narrowly defeated a party-switching incumbent (who was well-supported by independent PAC spending) to return a Kentucky House seat to the Democrats earlier this month. Without Emerge Kentucky, I’m not sure McKenzie becomes Rep. Cantrell. (By the way, ladies, the deadline to apply for Emerge Kentucky's next training has been extended to December 1.)
Training people to run for office and run campaigns and organize communities works. Leadership, public speaking, campaigning, tweeting are not God-given gifts like height or 20/20 vision. They’re skills that can be learned, honed. Because we are going to run candidates everywhere, every time, the Kentucky Democratic Party owes its candidates and organizers this training. Not once candidates win a primary. Now. Before they run. While they run against other Democrats. All the time. All over the state. This is the work of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Slowly, we will begin winning. It may be a surprise in a rural district from an especially strong candidate. Or, we may pick up a suburban district in northern Kentucky after a few swipes at it. But, slowly, we will begin to win.
Ironically, it may be a statewide office that we win first with the help of a bunch of losers at the bottom of a ticket. While coattails at the top of a ticket matter, people forget that having strong candidates at the bottom of a ticket can drive voters who otherwise may not have voted at all or may have otherwise voted for the other party to the polls. I’m not fancy enough to know what the opposite of coattails are, but they exist and—with the help of Kentucky Democrats in larger cities—these losers with reverse coattails may elect a Democratic governor in 2019 or a Democratic Senator in 2020.
It probably won’t happen that fast, though, folks. We need to be real about where we are: this is a decade-long project and just a ton of hard work and losing. For a long time, we’re going to have to run in a way that says, “This is not about winning. This is about fighting.” Of course, I happen to believe that once Democrats stop caring about whether they win or lose, they will run the kinds of campaigns that will eventually win.
Winning by losing. In a state where many of us worship a God whose death vouchsafed eternal life, it’s a strategy so crazy it just might work.
Share this post with someone you know who would make a good candidate for public office in Kentucky, some loser who loves a good fight. Tell them why you think they would make a good candidate, and, tell them you'll help. Tell them losing is okay: it's all part of the plan.