The Working Class Revolt Comes to Kentucky
Lessons for the National Democratic Party
Holy shit. I can’t believe they managed to pull it off but they actually did. It looks like Democrats have won back the Governor’s mansion in Kentucky, a state Donald Trump won by 30 points. They did it by driving up the margins in the urban and suburban areas, but also by outperforming in a Donald Trump stronghold, the coal counties in the Eastern part of the state.
So for those of you who aren’t Kentuckyfiles like myself, here were the basic dynamics of the race. Kentucky has long been a Democratic state at the state level but that trend had completely reversed in the Trump era. In fact, the just defeated Republican Governor Matt Bevin, a brash outsider businessman, was ushered into office in 2015 on a populist wave that in many ways foreshadowed Trump’s victory.
He proceeded to govern as a Chamber of Commerce asshole who promptly implemented union busting right to work legislation and fought tooth and nail to strip Kentuckians of the healthcare they’d gained through the ACA Medicaid expansion (which was more successfully implemented in Kentucky than in any other state in the country). But he really really fucked up when he messed with teacher’s pensions.
Now in a lot of rural towns in Kentucky, the school system is the heartbeat of the community not to mention one of the major employers. Not only did Matt Bevin attempt to mess with their pensions, but to add literal insult to injury, he insulted the teachers who shut down schools and rallied at the Capitol Building in solidarity. He went so far as to accuse them of being accessories to sexual assault. (Not kidding.) In other words, rather than the outsider populist he ran as, he turned out to be a rich guy prick who delighted in insulting workers and messing with their healthcare, unions, and pensions.
Now I must be honest, the Democratic candidate AG Andy Beshear is not a phenom in the charisma department. But he does have a well known last name in the state (his Dad was the popular governor who implemented the Medicaid expansion) and from everything I could tell he ran quite an excellent and disciplined campaign on the ground. But really, this race wasn’t about Andy Beshear. It was all about saying F you to Bevin.
Beshear won by running up the margins in the suburbs and urban areas but there aren’t enough of those in Kentucky to get you over the finish line on their own. No, it was coal country that came through and gave Beshear the numbers he needed to pull off the upset. The eastern part of the state is culturally conservative yes but also extremely populist and they were not having it with Bevin’s attacks on workers.
Now look, Democrats are rightfully giddy about this result. Especially since Don Jr and Pence and Trump all turned up to try to drag Bevin (who Trump described as a “pain in the ass”) across the finish line. BUT, I would like to sound a deep note of caution.
Kentucky Democrats did not win by launching esoteric attacks on Bevin about the norms and guardrails of Democracy or lofty ideals like freedom of the press even though Bevin is probably even more hostile to the press than Trump. They did it by staying lightning focused on the way that Bevin had hurt working class families.
Being back in the state was a big reminder for me about how non DC/NYC elites talk about politics. Just listen in this piece to how Teamsters Local 783 President John Stovall describes Trump. It’s way more effective than the Ukraine/Russia/norms and guardrails handwringing that you are hit over the head with here.
Stovall says that: His members who supported Trump are “starting to see that (the rhetoric) is not true. What he’s done is he’s hurt the middle class and lower income and his tax credits and all that have benefited the rich.” Simple. Straightforward. Connected to people’s lives. Not contempt-filled, judgey or condescending.
New polls this week of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have shown that Trump is in position to win the Electoral College again. Dems shouldn’t use this Kentucky victory as an excuse to feel like everything is going fine with their impeachment strategy and national messaging, instead they should use it as an opportunity to learn from this “red state” that unexpectedly turned blue on the back of a working class populist backlash.