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. 


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. 


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.

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.

Fuck no, I'm not going to "give Donald Trump a chance."

by Ben Carter in

I got a call yesterday from a family member and knew I would have to talk politics. 

In the wake of Trump’s victory in the electoral college, I have been doing my very best not to think of my Trump-supporting family members because I want to continue loving them and yet their support of Trump makes that very difficult. Truly, I would have a hard time writing a character who stands more fully for the things that I stand against.

By now, the extensive list of well-fitting descriptions of Trump should have been set to a musical jingle long ago like the McDonald’s “Menu Song”: racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, autocratic, incoherent, privileged, sexist, bigoted, uncurious, flimflamming, abusive, fear-driven, inciting, dog whistling, divisive, spiteful, petty, bullying.

So, 48 hours after electing one of the most loathsome, craven, disgraceful people I've ever had to pay attention to, I'm finding it hard to feel loving towards my wonderful, kind, Christian, compassionate Trump-supporting family members. 

“Well, I hope you can give him a chance,” said the family member.
 “He at least deserves for you to give him a chance.”

Fuck, no, I’m not giving Donald Trump a chance. 

Donald Trump promised to ban an entire religion from entering the United States. That’s scaredy-cat conduct not befitting a grown man, much less the President. Not to mention that banning an entire religion is basically the most Un-American thing you could possibly do. For the Muslims in America? No worries: just be forced to register. Totally unconstitutional. 

Donald Trump promised to deport up to 6,500,000 people who are living and working in our country with their families. He promised to use the power of the United States government to divide families, tear children out of the arms of their mothers and fathers. While lawful, this proposal is absolutely Un-Christian and no person who feels any bonds of familial affection would ever propose it as a legitimate solution to the challenges facing immigrant families.

He has promised to torture our enemies, despite his understanding that this is a war crime under international law. Instead, he claims that “we have to play the game the way they’re [ISIS] playing the game.”

What. In. The. Everloving. Fuck. 

During his entire campaign, including how he talks about immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, refugees, Donald Trump has stoked fear of the Other in an effort to divide our country and provide scapegoats to hard-pressed voters to blame for their troubles. This is nowhere more obvious than in his portrayal of the “inner cities” of America as postapocalyptic hellscapes overrun by violence

This is just the beginning and is to say nothing of Trump and women. But, I’m not going to make this into a catalog of Donald Trump’s outrageous, unthinking, unfeeling, unAmerican statements and plans. As I will explain below, I’ve got fucking work to do, and you can find that sort of catalog elsewhere.

“Well…” you say, “he didn’t really mean those things. He doesn’t actually plan to ban Muslims or commit war crimes.” 


If Donald Trump didn’t mean that shit, but just said it to get elected… Why in the world would I give that guy a chance?

Here’s the thing: there’s never been a more flip-floppity blowhard than Donald Trump. Beyond taking him at his word regarding the statements above, who knows what that dude actually believes or plans to do, if anything? But, the one thing that has been steadfast and unchanging about Trump’s politics through the decades in which he’s inflicted his gasbaggery on America is this: authoritarianism. Whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, whether pro-choice or anti-choice, pro-Iraq War or anti-Iraq War, Donald Trump’s core political instinct is authoritarian. It is his only political position. 

And, now he’s President. With a GOP-controlled Congress. And a goddamned Supreme Court nomination on the “Welcome” mat at the White House because of the nihilism and willingness of Republican Senators to destroy institutional norms and imperil our democracy paid huge dividends (yay!). And an army of alt-Right, white supremacist dogs across the nation already biting our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. They’ve heard the whistles. They know what to do. Now is the time for action

We are still waiting for Donald Trump to denounce and condemn the acts of violence being perpetrated in his name. Instead, we get tweets from the President-Elect claiming protests are "unfair".  

So, no. I’m not going to “give him a chance.” Donald Trump’s success in the primary and his nomination by the GOP was an opportunity for everyone to say, “Wow, looks like our democracy might be more fragile than we thought.” His election to the Presidency puts that democracy on a razor’s edge. Trump’s thuggishness and obvious admiration for authoritarians, his hard-core supporters’ brutality, and the willingness of Republicans I otherwise know to be decent, Christian people who love their families and work hard to fall in line behind Trump all combine to form a terrifying threat to our republic. 

The moment we give Donald Trump a “chance” is the moment we lose. How much will we lose? Which one of our freedoms will go first? Which ones will remain after Trump is gone? 

Which rights are luxuries?

Which one of our friends will be  injured or dead when Trump-empowered thugs come to terrorize our communities?

So, fuck no, I’m not giving Donald Trump a chance. 

Maybe you are saying now, "But, Ben, doesn't not giving Donald Trump a chance make us as bad as Republicans who just delayed and obstructed for eight years?"

No. No it doesn't.

Why? Because Donald Trump is no Barack Obama. If you can't appreciate the difference between the two men, I need you to stop reading. This essay is not for you. 

Before Donald Trump was elected, I was a husband and dad who worked as an attorney protecting homeowners from foreclosure, trying to prevent tenants from getting evicted, and trying to stop creditors from abusing poor people. I’m still going to be a husband, dad, and lawyer, but now the work I have to do—the work we all have to do—is not giving Donald Trump a single chance. 

What that work looks like is going to be different for each person, of course.

Photo Credit:  Pabak Sarkar

Photo Credit: Pabak Sarkar

For me, it will mean more writing, more reading, and a hell of a lot more meetings. Union meetings. Community meetings. Church meetings. Political meetings. Rallys. Protests. Vigils. Trips to Frankfort. Trips to Washington. Trips across Kentucky for more meetings. Goddamn, it's going to be so much work not giving this guy a single fucking chance. And, what’s worse, is that I’m going to have to somehow summon some kindness, empathy, compassion, grit, faith, and honesty. It would be so much easier to be fueled by anger and fear, but we know that any work worth doing is worth doing with love, hanging taut between patience and urgency. 

Since Tuesday, I have been reading and listening and talking to try to prepare for the fight ahead. I'm know that nothing I've said here is particularly ground-breaking or original. But, I need to say it, publicly, because I need for my friends, family, and allies to know that I am going to resist Donald Trump's America—as I told my Trump-supporting family member—"with every fiber of my being." 

For me and for the majority of people who voted on Tuesday, Donald Trump has already had enough chances. Time and again, he blew them and disqualified himself long, long ago. 

He’s out of chances and he’s not even in office. Sad.