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Democrats' Southern Struggles Mean Rough Times for Kentucky Candidates

Tyler Franklin

The filing deadline for Kentucky's May primary elections is just over a week away, and no prominent Democrats have signed up to challenge any of the state's five Republican congressmen. Likewise, Rand Paul has no high-profile challengers for his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Republicans had a banner year in 2015, electing a governor and putting the state House at the tipping point of GOP control.

After decades of dominance followed by years of competitiveness, this has left the Kentucky Democratic Party searching for candidates. Meanwhile, ex-political leaders and a potential future candidate urge a re-calibration for the future.

As he mulled a congressional run last year, Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones went as far as to discuss the possibility with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But he recently announced that he won't be running for any elected post anytime soon.

Jones would have been a political newcomer, but he's a well-known personality in the state.

In an interview last week, he said he seriously considered a run for Congress as a Democrat this year. And he candidly discussed his potential political bid in a recent episode of his new podcast.

Among the reasons he opted out, Jones said running as one of the only Democrats in the state would have made him a big target for the Republican Party, which he said he didn’t want to deal with quite yet.

“Seeing as I was going to be one of the only statewide Democrats on the ballot — or, you know, a major-office Democrat on the ballot,” Jones told WFPL. “So, do I want to be the mantle of the Democratic Party that is collapsing?”

Jones attributes much of this decline to problems with the tone of the national Democratic Party.

“I think Democrats nationally don’t know how to talk to white Southerners,” he said. “They just don’t. They don’t know how to deal with them without being condescending.

“I think most of these people can be convinced on economic issues, but they don’t want to hear it from messengers that think they are better than them,” he said.

Jones said the way Democrats and the media talked about Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis during her refusal to issue marriage licenses was a good example of how Democrats can sometimes be “rude” toward rural people.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the “elitism” problem plaguing liberals and national Democrats has been an issue for a long time. But it’s not something Democrats have been pressed to fix.

“The Democrats don’t need the South,” he said. “They can write off the region.”

To win the White House, Democrats during the last two elections have relied on big cities, coastal regions and minority voters, which has been an effective strategy.

But the tactic has had the opposite effect on state-level elections, where Democrats are losing across much of the country. This has been particularly true in Kentucky. It leaves Southern Democrats in a difficult position, and it dims the outlook for progressive policies in the South.

Voss said the kind of swing voters Kentucky Democrats need to clinch an election are completely different from swing voters for Democrats in a presidential election.

“Our swing voters are not urban working-class males and middle class suburban soccer moms,” Voss said. “Our swing voters tend to be in small towns and rural areas — people who are Democrats but lean conservative on cultural issues.”

And so a key part of most Kentucky Democrats’ electoral strategies in recent years has been to distance themselves from the national party. Kentucky Democrats, by and large, have shied from embracing President Obama, who is resoundingly unpopular in the state.

That's worked in some instances, but now the only Democrats in statewide or congressional offices are U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear. The state House remains in Democratic hands by a four-vote margin.

Former state Auditor Adam Edelen has said his upset loss last year was less about his candidacy and more about the party. He's also urged Democrats to begin thinking of themselves as the minority party in the state, and re-calibrating their political strategy to that mindset.

The state Democratic Party is currently seeking a new chair, who'll likely have the challenge of rethinking the party's electoral approach.

But a new ground game in Kentucky may not be helpful without changes at the national level, Jones said. If Democrats can’t find a way to fix their relationship with a large swath of Southern voters, they will likely continue to lose ground on state and local levels, he said.

“I think as long as the Democrats are like that, it will be hard to win in places like Kentucky,” Jones said.