For Kentucky Democrats, the Only Way to Win is to Lose

by Ben Carter in


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. 

I’m from Greenup County and a Democrat, so this red wave hurts both my head and heart. Just watch this .gif for a moment and let that wave wash over your retinas. Time to think about some stuff. Photo courtesy of  @MetricMaps , who you should definitely follow on Twitter. 

I’m from Greenup County and a Democrat, so this red wave hurts both my head and heart. Just watch this .gif for a moment and let that wave wash over your retinas. Time to think about some stuff. Photo courtesy of @MetricMaps, who you should definitely follow on Twitter. 

Stark.

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. 

Source: https://mic.com/articles/157558/here-s-what-the-electoral-college-map-would-look-like-if-only-millennials-voted#.K6LJtiJzO

Source: https://mic.com/articles/157558/here-s-what-the-electoral-college-map-would-look-like-if-only-millennials-voted#.K6LJtiJzO

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.

So 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. 

We have already seen the success that organizations like Emerge Kentucky and Wellstone Action have had in training future candidates to run for office.

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. 

Action Item: 

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.


How Democrats Win the Senate Next Year in Kentucky

by Ben Carter in


It started innocently enough. After reading that Rand Paul’s new book had only sold 500 copies and frustrated with the recent defeats of the Kentucky Democratic Party’s candidates, I tweeted a couple weeks ago: 

After sending the tweet, the idea sort of stuck around, though. I started thinking, “You know, it’s not the craziest idea ever. I mean, it’s not crazy like balancing the budget on the backs of poor people.”

A young person, running with a populist message, hellbent on inspiring and organizing Kentucky’s Democratic base to vote and encourage others to vote—that might just work. Matt Bevin may just ruin the Republican brand in time for the November election. Hillary at the top of the ticket and more people voting in 2016 helps the Democratic candidate, as well. And, the longer Rand Paul stays in this crazy Republican primary, the longer he is ignoring Kentucky and saying unhelpful, callous things in a futile effort to stay competitive. 

So, I thought about it. I talked with some people about it. The more I thought about it and the more I talked about it, the more two things became clear: 1) this race is winnable by the right candidate and 2) the timing just couldn’t be worse for me to run. 

I have a number of reasons for wanting to run. But, I have three excellent reasons not to. 

will&sarah
ben&josh&vickie

Ultimately, the people I talked with who knew best were able to get through my thick skull something I didn’t want to but needed to hear: running would mean being a candidate first and a father, husband, and lawyer second. That’s not a sacrifice I’m willing to make. 

But, I did get far enough in the process to write an announcement speech last Saturday morning. I am sharing it with you because I hope we can create the space in Kentucky for a candidate to say these kinds of things and run this kind of campaign. I think it’s the only kind of campaign that has a chance of winning because to win we must honor the Democratic Party’s roots in the hard, frustrating work of organizing and speak authentically on the core issues that motivate Democrats to organize and vote. 


Thank you for joining me this morning. I’m launching my campaign for United States Senate today because I believe Kentucky deserves a Senator whose primary mission is improving the financial security of Kentucky’s working families. As an attorney, I work every day with poor and struggling middle class families. Homeowners facing foreclosure, tenants facing eviction, debtors facing abusive debt collectors, moms and dads facing bankruptcy because of medical bills, young people wondering how they’re going to get to a job interview because the lemon a car dealer just sold them won’t start. College graduates wondering what to do about student loan debt. 

Everywhere, everyday, too many Kentuckians are wondering how they're going to make it to the next payday, whether today is the day that it all falls apart. 

This wasn’t my reality growing up. I hit the lottery: two loving parents in a financially secure home. My mom stayed at home with my sister and me and helped us every step of our journey. My dad is still the hardest-working person I know despite the fact that he recently retired from a job helping to run a coal business. Growing up, I had every single opportunity that love or money could buy. In many ways, the fact that we talk about “hitting the lottery” when talking about what families we’re born into is why I’m running: opportunity in America shouldn’t be available only to the lucky kids. It’s our responsibility as Americans to create systems and programs that ensure that every kid has the same chance to succeed. That’s what living in a meritocracy is. 

For many of us, ensuring that every child grows up safe and with an opportunity to succeed is motivated by our faith. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all agree: caring for the poor, insisting on compassionate treatment of all people, protecting the elderly, the vulnerable, standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, welcoming the outsider—these are compelled by our faith. You don’t have to have faith for these to be your values, but if you do have faith, I don’t understand how they’re not your values. 

If I’m in town, I’m in the pews of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. My faith is part of who I am and without a doubt informs the work I do and the work I will do as a Senator. I don’t begrudge anyone whose politics is influenced by their faith. Religions help us understand and negotiate how we live in community with one another, about how we live out our shared commitments to each other. And, as a government by the people, our government is how we live out those commitments to one another. 

So, it is natural that our religious beliefs and worldviews should inform our politics. But, it’s not enough to simply have faith. In America in 2015, you’ve got to have facts, too. You can’t say, “I don’t believe in climate change because I’m not a scientist and God said after the flood that he’d never destroy the world again.” The facts suggest that human pollution is altering the climate of our planet. And, I believe being good stewards of our land, air, and water is a Biblical imperative.  

If you want to know where I stand on issues, ask yourself what would help working families, poor kids, vulnerable senior citizens, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. It is our responsibility to provide basic health care for all people. To insure that people have the opportunity to work safely and for a wages that allow them to provide the basic needs to their families. To build affordable housing for every person and every family. To build an affordable educational system accessible to every young person. To protect refugees and welcome immigrants. To ensure that people can age with dignity. 

On these issues, Democrats have a lot to be proud of. We have created 8.3 million new jobs during the Obama administration. Under Bush, the economy lost 463,000 jobs in eight years. Unemployment has declined from reduced unemployment from 10% to 5%. Together, Democrats in Kentucky like Steve Beshear and in Washington have expanded affordable health care access to more than 500,000 Kentuckians. All while being fought every step of the way by a know-nothing, do-nothing Republican Congress. 

Did I vote for Obama? Hell yes, I did. Twice. And, I’d do it a third time if I could. 

Nevertheless, the election results earlier this month demonstrate that Democrats have a real problem in Kentucky. The motivating theory of this campaign is that Democrats have a lot of work to do in living rooms, fellowship halls, coffee shops, bars, and on doorsteps across the Commonwealth to listen, persuade, and motivate. Now is not the time to rest. Now is the time to organize. Our odds are long and our time is short, but the stakes for Kentucky’s working families are too high to not do the work. Our campaign will build an organization—rooted in every single county in Kentucky—with one goal: training and empowering our friends, neighbors, and family to get their friends, neighbors, and families to the polls on November 8th, 2016. If we can’t energize the people who didn’t vote in this last election to vote for us in 2016, we won’t win. We need them to vote. To vote for a future that is possible, but only if we organize for it, work for it, and insist upon it.

When Democrats get to work, people get to work. When Democrats tell their story, the stories of working families have better endings. Please go to my website: sign up, donate, and share this with your friends. The work begins today. Right now. 


Obviously, my work on a Senate campaign does not begin today. I'm a little sad that I don't get to give this speech and run this campaign—we would have had a lot of fun in this fight. It's easy to not be too sad, though, knowing I made the right decision for my family and my law practice. 

But, I hope to get to work on a campaign that shares the values articulated in this speech and that will speak unapologetically to Kentucky's voters about the Democratic Party's unparalleled record of creating economic security for Kentucky's families and representing the best of human nature: compassion, courage, generosity, and empathy. 


Republicans:Government :: Atheists:Church

by Ben Carter in


Electing a Republican to run your government is like electing an atheist to be your minister: fundamentally, they’re just not fit for the job. I don’t want a member of the Flat Earth Society piloting my cruise ship. And that’s what we’ve got with Republicans in government.

Republicans believe that government is the problem, not the solution. They abhor government so deeply, they long to drown it in a bathtub.

We don’t call ministers who believe that God is the problem. We don’t call ministers whose most fervent dreams include drowning God in a bathtub. Why would we elect people to serve in government who don’t believe government can work as a powerful force for good in America and the world?

This is the challenge for Democrats and America more broadly: governing effectively in a two-party system in which one party’s guiding thesis is that government doesn’t work. Democrats must not only pass legislation that improves people’s lives, they must do it while being opposed by a party for whom government’s failure proves their point. This is the structural imbalance of power in American politics today. Republicans don’t actually have to do anything. Victory for them can be as simple as an erosion in the faith of the American people in their government to govern. When 45% of people (across party lines) say they are “very dissatisfied” with the country’s political system, that’s a Republican victory.

Politically and strategically, Republicans have staked-out a no-lose position. By claiming that government doesn’t work, that it can’t work, Republicans can win the argument even as they fail to govern. Supply-side economics failed? See, government doesn’t work. Tax cuts didn’t increase tax revenue? See, Washington is incompetent. Intransigence on raising the debt ceiling caused a downgrade in America’s credit rating? We told you: government doesn’t work.

Are you jaded yet? Are you cynical? Are you skeptical that politicians will ever do anything but serve the monied and the powerful? Do you think government only works for the beautiful, the famous, the rich, the jet-setters, the cigar smokers?

There: Republicans win.

The more Washington bumbles, the more Republicans win. The less you believe that government can function effectively, create opportunity for all Americans, distribute justice to the oppressed the more Republicans win.

Governing as a Democrat is like being on a road trip with a guy sitting shotgun who every once in a while tries to grab the wheel and run you both into a bridge embankment. So, how are Democrats and responsible lawmakers supposed to govern when their opposition wins when the process of governing falls apart? How can they build consensus when Republicans have every incentive to never consent?

I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I don’t mean them to be rhetorical, either. When government’s divided, we have two options. First, we can build compromises along largely Republican lines—welfare reform in the 90s, spending cuts in the recent debt ceiling negotiations. (Note how both of these bipartisan compromises reinforce the message that government cannot work.) Second, we can use Republican’s selfish intransigence against them. We can use what power we have to force vote after vote on bills that are popular with the American public.

Massive majorities support raising taxes on the super-rich. Massive majorities support closing corporate tax loopholes that allow 38% of the richest companies in America to pay zero taxes. A smaller (but a clear) majority support increased spending to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure.

In a recent special to the New York Times, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg outlined the problem with our eroding faith in government to work on behalf of the public’s interest. Following Bush’s bailout of Wall Street and Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, “They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter.”

As people across the country told me, the average citizen doesn’t “get money for free.” Their conclusion: Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible. […] Everything they witness affirms the public’s developing view of how government really works. They see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations, that makes these outcomes irresistible. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama’s Washington.

What makes Greenberg’s article useful is not his diagnosis of the problem, but rather his prescription for restoring people’s faith in government. He provides a few policy positions that Democrats can adopt to restore American’s confidence in their civic institutions.

First (and most important in my mind), is campaign finance reform. In a separate essay, I will address the poverty of our cash-rich process and the damage it does to the foundations of our democracy. Here, it is important to recognize that having a process that allows shadow organizations to take millions of dollars from undisclosed individuals and corporations works to make the average citizen feel like the game is rigged. The more our political process makes people feel like they are not represented—that government works for the monied and connected—the more Republicans win. Republicans’ primary message—government can’t work—is reinforced by an electoral process that makes our democracy look like a plutocracy.

Greenberg:

The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.

Greenberg closes his article by proposing additional policy areas where Democrats can show the American people that government can work: tax reform (transparency), immigration reform (responsibility), and deficit reduction (accountability). The whole article is worth a read.

Governing is hard. That much is obvious. But, electing Republicans makes governing doubly hard because they win, politically and ideologically, when government fails. The unfortunate reality of modern two-party politics requires the Democrats to win overwhelming majorities in Congress before anything can get accomplished. With compromise foreclosed, our only option remains building a popular movement that can send to Washington an overwhelming force of elected officials who believe government can—must—work to improve the lives of all Americans. Without overwhelming numbers, Republicans in Congress can continue to sabotage government for their political gain.

Writing about the Republican Presidential primary candidates, John Dickerson observed, “When you see government as a rampaging elephant, you want a candidate who can shoot the elephant dead, not someone who can manage to ride the elephant better." This is the difference: Republicans elect people to kill the elephant while Democrats want to throw some saddlebags on the elephant and cover great distances on its back.

Right now, Americans are deeply skeptical of our government’s ability to travel any distance for the common good. Until Democrats can show the American people that government can still work for everyone, Republicans’s message will continue to resonate and the American people will continue tolerating Republicans, hiding in the bushes, guns trained on our government’s heart.