Kentucky's Democrats Kind of Sound Like Republicans. Is That Necessary to Win?

Aug 2, 2015

Jack Conway at Friday's bean supper in Marshall County
Credit John Null/WKMS


  This weekend, Fancy Farm Picnic emcee Matt Jones eschewed the traditional, “keep it civil” remarks that usually open the picnic’s political speaking in favor of a 10-minute roast of every politician onstage - touching on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway’s hair and Mitch McConnell’s lukewarm affection for former primary foe, now Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin. But Jones offered a particularly snide appraisal of outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s accomplishments.

“He cut $1 billion from the budget, he privatized Medicaid, he appealed the gay marriage decision to the Supreme Court and he fought the EPA on coal," Jones said. "I gotta tell you, Governor, you’re the best Republican governor we’ve ever had in this state.”

Conway, in a move supported by national Democrats, didn’t appeal the same-sex marriage decision. But from his current television ads, he, too, kind of sounds like a Republican. In one, he’s touted as a fiscal conservative and says with a pleased smile that he sued President Obama – twice. And the word "Democrat" is never uttered. It’s not even in the tiny text at the bottom of the screen. This kind of obfuscation led University of Kentucky political science chair Ernest Yanarella to pen an op-ed for Sunday’s Lexington Herald-Leader imploring "weak-kneed Dems” to quit running from their origins.

“Democrats, I think, are going to continue to find themselves tromped at the polls as long as they don’t pose themselves as an alternative," Yanarella told WKMS last week.

To Yanarella’s point, Republicans currently hold both U.S. Senate seats and five out of six U.S. Congressional districts, while Kentucky hasn’t been a presidential blue state in 20 years.

Yanarella, who is a Democrat, says Conway is “stepping into the same groove” set by Alison Lundergan Grimes last year. Grimes infamously refused to admit whether or not she had voted for President Obama before losing to McConnell by more than 15 points.

“Her strategy failed precisely because she could not set herself off as a real independent voice and to defend those national policies," Yanarella said.

But how does a Kentucky Democrat embrace the policies of a president that is politically radioactive in the state? Kentucky Democratic Party chair Patrick Hughes, appearing at Marshall County’s night-before-Fancy Farm bean supper, said it's tough.

“We’re dealing with a lot of rhetoric coming down from people who have different agendas," Hughes said. "Lot of outside money coming into Kentucky, advancing things like right-to-work, trying to pin President Obama on everybody.”

Late Marshall County judge-executive Mike Miller was honored at Friday's bean supper.
Credit John Null/WKMS

  Marshall County is one place where a right-to-work agenda is not being advanced. In fact, the Democratic bulwark is the only county in the state to approve an anti-right-to-work resolution. The fiscal court’s move was made in memory of the late Democratic judge-executive Mike Miller, who died last year after four decades in office. Miller never lost a precinct in Marshall County, but even his post is in danger of flipping to the GOP in this November’s special election. Republican Kevin Neal, who gave Miller a tight challenge last year, is running against longtime deputy judge-executive Melonie Chambers.

A Republican win in Marshall could perhaps mean a sea change in western Kentucky politics. But there is some hope for Kentucky Democrats who sound like Democrats. Cailey Radcliffe, a recent Marshall County High School graduate, received a scholarship at the bean supper and read from her essay on why she chose the Democratic Party.

“I support the Democratic platform, because I agree with their viewpoints on the issues the United States is facing – securing basic human rights and protecting the environment and allowing any and all Americans to pursue their dreams," Radcliffe said.

It can’t be said Radcliffe's praise for the policies of the Obama administration was echoed in the candidates' speeches that followed.