Democrats struggle to field candidates in rural communities they once dominated
Campaign signs are stacked next to rows of vintage clothing at the new Democratic Party headquarters in Marshall County, Kentucky.
The building doesn’t have internet or working plumbing. It used to be a fashion boutique. Old chandeliers hang from the ceiling in the 20th century home as 30-year-old Drew Williams, the local party’s chair, points out what needs to be fixed and what still works: mainly the lights.
“It’s really beautiful, it’s really just trying to get it back up to par, get everything back working on it,” Williams said. “The plumbing mostly is the main issue, and then all the clothing. You can see all the clothing.”
The local Democrats in this rural western Kentucky community need a little bit of help, too. The party moved into the building earlier this year after not having an official headquarters for over a decade. And in this fall’s general election, they failed to put up candidates in 15 of the 17 countywide elections.
Democrats have been blown out at the ballot box recently. Williams said that’s demoralized local candidates and Democratic voters.
“We’ve had people that called and have messaged after like the [filing] deadlines and everything, and they were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I had no idea it was going to be this bad,’” Williams said.
“I think it goes to everybody’s level of disheartenment about the situation. They felt like, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to sit down. I’m tired.’”
But it wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, Democrats in Marshall County used to be the only game in town: more than 90% of the county’s voters were registered Democrats in 1978.
Mike Miller, a Democrat who served as the county’s judge-executive and top local leader for four decades, won eleven consecutive elections going into the 2010s.
The region was so partial to Democrats that the writer Irvin Cobb, originally from Paducah, dubbed western Kentucky’s congressional district as the “Gibraltar of Kentucky Democracy” with Democrats winning consistently in the region.
But now Republicans dominate elections across the region. In Marshall County, Republicans still trail Democrats in voter registration by 225 voters, but have swept nearly every partisan race. Statewide, Republicans surpassed Democrats in overall voter registration in July for the first time ever.
The political shift has been dramatic across the Ohio Valley, which was once defined by union power and labor issues, but now is dominated by social issues like abortion, racial justice and gay marriage.
Behind the red shift
So where did all the Democrats go? In Marshall County, you can find some of them at the GOP headquarters, an old storefront on the courthouse square painted red from head to toe.
Eddie McGuire, the county GOP party chair, is a former Democrat. He said the party has had to buy more tables to meet the influx of former Democrats coming to their meetings.
“It was not that the Republican Party was changing: we were kind of staying the same. But the Democrats were getting more and more liberal,” he said. “Tons of people in Marshall County say, ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, they left me.’”
During a meeting in October, a few dozen people showed up for pizza and election planning. Small laminated signs featuring images of a cross, an AR-15 and the words “GOD, GUNS, TRUMP” adorn each table. A framed picture of former President Ronald Reagan hangs on the back wall, though he didn’t win Marshall County during his presidential runs in the 1980s.
There’s a range of reasons of why these current Republicans say they switched their party registrations: Abortion. Protecting gun rights. The divisive nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
“I was running for coroner at that time in 2018, and I wasn’t getting a lot of traction. But after the Kavanaugh hearings, I knew almost certainly I was going to win,” said Michael Gordon, the current GOP coroner.
After the Kavanaugh hearings, a group of elderly women asked Gordon what his party affiliation was, telling him that they would never vote for another Democrat.
But there are still some holdouts.
Rita Dotson is a self-described “moderate” Democrat, who serves as the nonpartisan mayor of Benton. She works with and is friends with Republicans throughout her community. But when she was asked by a Republican friend if she planned to switch her party, she declined.
“I said, ‘Never. I’ll never switch my party.’ And he said, ‘Well, I didn’t leave the Democrat Party. they left me.’ And I said, “Do you know how tired I am of hearing that?’”
Dotson said national issues have seeped into local races and contribute to the political shift seen in the region.
“The propaganda machine is running hard and heavy out there, and one side is doing a better job than the other,” Dotson said. “It’s the messaging.”
George Humphreys, a historian and author in western Kentucky says campaigns have shifted their focus from economic issues like jobs and labor to social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
“Western Kentucky and Kentucky has been conservative, always, and as the Democratic Party became a little bit more liberal on social issues…you see this dramatic shift,” he said.
Humphreys is the author of “The Fall of Kentucky’s Rock,” an award-winning political history of Democrats’ ascent and decline in the region.
In the book, Humphreys pointed to Republican messaging on mediums like conservative talk radio and cable news as widely effective in using social issues — “god, guns and gays,” he says — to create a secure grip on western Kentucky voters.
“Making effective use of divisive social issues, and influenced daily by messaging from conservative talk radio and cable news, the GOP now has a solid lock on area voters,” Humphreys wrote.
Elsewhere in the Ohio Valley, the fall of labor union membership — especially coal miner unions — has been cited as a primary reason why coalfields in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky have shifted toward Republicans after previously being Democratic strongholds.
Al Cunningham ran for Marshall County’s state representative seat as a staunch pro-labor Democrat in 2020. At 70 years-old he worked as a union representative for most of his life. He also campaigned on conservative stances like being anti-abortion and for 2nd Amendment rights. It didn’t matter: he got blown out garnering less than 30% of the vote.
“You hand somebody your literature and stop by, and when they look at it and say, ‘You’re a Democrat?’” Cunningham said. “They just hand it back to you, shut the door in your face, call you a baby killer.”
Cunningham said for some people he spoke with on the campaign trail, it didn’t matter who he was as an individual or his nuanced stances and positions — all that mattered was his political party, and being a Democrat wasn’t going to cut it.
A lack of competition
And while the Ohio Valley is increasingly dominated by Republicans, the vast majority of statehouse races across the region are uncontested.
This fall, 80% of uncontested legislative races in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are guaranteed Republican wins. They have no Democratic challengers. Compare that with 1996 when Democrats still had a stronger grip on the ballot box. Back then, 70% of uncontested statehouse races across the region were guaranteed for Democrats.
Scott Lasley, a political science professor with Western Kentucky University and former chair of the Warren County Republican Party, said it can be hard to find candidates in races that are an uphill battle from the start.
“For the most part, people don’t like running through brick walls,” Lasley said. “It really does make it hard to recruit, certainly quality challengers, but just any challenges at all.”
Lasley said in an ideal world, there would be more competition and choice for voters in general elections, but that the debate between candidates is likely shifting to Republican primary elections in places like western Kentucky.
The same used to be true for the region’s Democrats in not-so-distant history.
McGuire, the Marshall County GOP chair, said when he first registered to vote in the 1990s, he was told he had to register as a Democrat to even be able to vote in local elections. Now, that trend has increasingly flipped.
”They said, ‘You can register to be whatever you want. Just know that you can’t vote in any county elections unless you are a Democrat because no Republicans are ever on the county ballot,’” McGuire said. “That’s just the way it was.”
Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge said being a candidate can be a grueling experience, and that the state party has done an “asymbal job” at building a bench of candidates over the past decades.
“We want folks to be able to come in to assess what opportunities exist for them to lead in their communities or across the Commonwealth, have an infrastructure at the local level that can support that whether it’s running for dog catcher or county judge-executive or anything in between,” Elridge said.
Democrats didn’t field candidates in 47 of the 100 elections in the Kentucky House of Representatives this year.
Elridge said the party has to find candidates who are trusted by their local communities, and start training them.
“We stopped doing those with intentionality, and the infrastructure ultimately fell apart. And so we’ve got to rebuild that but build it in a way where it’s meant to last,” he said.
Sean Southard, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Republican Party, predicts that Republicans will continue to dominate rural places like western Kentucky, just like Democrats did for almost a century.
“A lot of the Democrats are just complaining about the fact that, you know, they don’t want to do the same amount of work that we did for the course of, you know, decades,” Southard said. “It’s hard work. It takes a lot of work.”
For Drew Williams, the local Democratic Party chair in Marshall County, he points to someone like former longtime judge-executive Mike Miller as a model for rebuilding the party.
Williams said it’s harder to connect with some voters. Nationalized issues are often overtaking personal connections. Miller was skilled at making those connections.
“The reason why we can’t get personal now really hurts us,” Williams said. “He made it to where being Democrat was like a safe space for people’s feelings…like their livelihoods, their social awareness and stuff like that, and that was all kind of the package of our local culture.”
When that local culture of being a Democrat became overtaken by more regional and national perceptions of what Democrats and Republicans were, it became harder to build on conversations with voters, Williams said. Miller’s death in 2014 only accelerated that trend.
“It was like a touchstone moment,” Williams said.
Miller’s brand of politics was, above all else, personal. His widow Chyrill Miller, was appointed to be judge-executive after Mike’s sudden death in 2014.
“You didn’t have to have an appointment with Mike,” she said. “You walked in that door — ‘Hey, how you doing? Come on in. Want some coffee?’ That was the way it was.”
Mike Miller campaigned vigorously throughout the county for each reelection, she said, even if his opponent was weak or nonexistent. He gave up family time to serve on county boards and lobbied for funding and support from state lawmakers and bureaucrats. Miller now has a local park named after him.
Williams and other Democrats like Dotson in Marshall County said they want to be competitive at the ballot box and be able to find a middle ground with Republicans on policy, saying the other side of the political aisle can have good ideas and be good people. But the local party chair believes that work can’t begin without a headquarters.
That means moving into that old home.
“To me it hasn’t seemed so negative because we went from not having a building to having a building,” he said. “We went from not doing our meetings — either from COVID or a lack of participation — to doing meetings again.”