While nationally the Democrats cracked quite a few political pollsters’ crystal balls with a tepid performance at the polls, in Kentucky they took a downright thrashing, just four years after losing a nearly century-long grip on the state House.
Kentucky Republicans gained 13 seats in the state House — the last in the south to fall out of Democratic control — two in the state Senate, as well as handily defending their incumbent seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
In eastern Kentucky, the Party of Lincoln (himself a Kentucky boy) successfully flipped four seats, including the 100th District that includes almost all of Boyd County. The GOP also saw gains in heavily Republican western Kentucky (three seats), as a well as a few in central and northern Kentucky.
Of the 25 seats Democrats still retain in the lower chamber of the legislature, 15 of them were for candidates unopposed — another seat in the Bowling Green area only saw an Independent challenger to the Democratic incumbent.
On the flip side, 20 Republican seats were foregone conclusions, including the 98th District’s Dr. Danny Bentley, who ran unopposed. Two seats out west and one outside of Louisville were only challenged by Libertarians, who didn’t poll high enough to be real threats.
Why such a huge a showing?
Kentucky GOP spokesman Mike Lonergan pointed to the leftward drift in the Democratic Party as the main culprit.
“Democrats lost big yet again because they’re drifting further and further to the left, recruiting activist candidates who have more in common with liberal extremists like Nancy Pelosi than they do with their home districts,” Lonergan wrote in a statement.
It’s an assessment echoed by Scott Sharp, who overcame Representative Terri Branham Clark in the 100th District race this by almost nine percentage points.
“I think that the citizens of Kentucky of the 100th District is sending a message to the Democratic Party — they’re sending a message to the Democratic Party of Frankfort, to the Governor and to the National Democratic Party as a whole that ‘we’re not going to go there,’” Sharp said. “As they lose elections, the Democratic Party, they’re going to have to recognize and say, ‘we need to go moderate. We don’t need to go this far left.’”
However, Branham Clark said the Democratic Party’s woes in Kentucky are a bit more nuanced. Take, for example, her case — Branham Clark is a self-described “conservative Democrat … a lifelong Free Will Baptist, a gun owner and pro-life.”
“During the election, there was an increase in misinformation, there was a prevalence of misinformation that painted me to be something other than what I am,” Branham Clark said. “I think you see that on the local level with a lot of local candidates that there’s an effort to paint us to be along the lines of national-level Democrats.”
Sharp said the campaign, particularly the use of flyers, helped “articulate the difference” between him and Branham Clark.
“There were some PACs (Political Action Committees) that got involved, they sent out a whole bunch of flyers that got some people mad, but it let people see the difference,” Sharp said.
The Trump Effect — straight-ticket voting to support the President — helped propel the GOP to historic gains as well, according to both Sharp and Branham Clark.
“There’s a a little bit of a factor of that, certainly. I think there was a factor in that. I’m sure that was an issue, how much of an issue, I don’t know,” Sharp said.
“It was a referendum against Democrats for Trump,” Branham Clark said. “From my understanding, they weren’t even looking at the down ticket.”
While straight-ticket voting certainly helped the GOP gain votes, the story in the 100th District shows some folks still split their tickets. According to unofficial cumulative records from the Boyd County Election Board, 7,104 voters cast straight ballots for the GOP and 3,274 voted straight-ticket Democrat. Another 155 voted straight Libertarian. For President, 14,295 voted for Trump and 7,083 voted for Biden, with less than 400 voting between the Libertarians, the Greens and Mr. Kanye West.
Sharp wound up totaling 10,558 while Clark received 8,865 of the vote. It’s hard to say how many folks cast a Clark-Trump ballot or a Sharp-Biden ballot, but it can be said roughly 60% (remember, Bentley has a small portion of the Boyd as well) voted for Sharp via a straight ticket, while only around 40% voted for Clark with a straight ticket.
Looking beyond Boyd, Democrats — with the exception of Kathy Hinkle in the 96th who had won by a mere five votes in 2018 — seemed to fare about as well as Clark did in terms of the margins when it was an incumbent running. In races where the incumbent Democrat had retired (which accounted for eight of the 13 flips) they were pretty much whipped by 60-70% margins.
According to Kentucky Young Democrats President Lauren Tussey, the state party is at a bit of a crossroads due to a “lack of focus” and the old-guard’s approach. Tussey said factors that played into Republicans’ favor over the past four years is bigger war chests — although last reports by in the flipped seats showed that pretty much went either way — better development of young politicians and erring on the side of caution when courting young voters.
“I think that what the Democratic Party is going to have to realize is that they’re trying to win races by being centrists, they’re trying to win seats by being more conservative than the conservative they’re running against. With McGrath’s incredibly poor performance in the Senate race, we’re seeing that’s probably not the best tactic for them,” Tussey said.
Tussey continued, “In a community like Boyd County, if you’re running in a legislative role, you most likely are going to have to mirror your constituents, you’re going to need to reflect their values. But on a statewide level we got that Golden Triangle of Louisville, Lexington, Northern Kentucky that really isn’t keen to support somebody who doesn’t believe in the ideologies that they support.”
The challenge that State Rep. Charles Booker posed to McGrath in the U.S. Senate primary could pave the way to a shift in the leadership of the Kentucky Democratic Party, which Tussey said is due to be reorganized next year.
Unchallenged seats also pose a problem for Democrats, as seen in the last election. Tussey said those seats show “a lack of priority on the Democratic Party of Kentucky’s part.”
However, to Dr. Bentley, the unchallenged seat in the 98th, consisting of mostly Greenup County, signals that the constituents “put a lot of faith in you.” But it also shows the change in party of affiliation as well, Bentley said.
“We have several thousand people throughout the state convert their party, changing from either Independent/Democrat to the Republican Party of Kentucky,” Bentley. “There’s been a lot of people in Greenup County change their party affiliation.”
While electioneering is one thing, governing is another — both Bentley and Sharp said despite the gains in the state house, ram-rodding legislation and furthering the political divide isn’t in the GOP’s interest. Since he didn’t have an election to worry about, Bentley said he has been focusing on insulin price controls and opioid prescribing practices for the 2021 session.
“The last time I ran this insulin bill, there were no ‘no’ votes on it in the house,” Bentley said. “It got tied up in the Senate, that’s where the problem was. This time it will pass — that’s going across the aisle. I always do that.”
Sharp said there’s a lot of common ground the majority and minority parties can find, particularly in economic development.
“We need to come and work in the middle or we’re going to see what’s going on in Washington, where no side is talking and it’s all soundbites and the gotchas,” Sharp said. “United we stand, divided we fall is a very true statement, at least in my book it is.”
However, Sharp was quick to say there are areas where he’s “not going to go there” such as Second Amendment issues.
Branham Clark said she hopes to see leadership styles like Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland (a very blue state) and Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia (a very red state) wherein they eschew the party labels.
“What’s happening in our political environment right now is that we’re labeling all candidates with a D or an R and aligning them with the extremes of each party. But the thing of it is, 90% of Americans live in the middle. Not many of us are extreme,” Branham Clark said. “I think we’re going to have to remove the labels off these candidates.”
Tussey called for more community involvement, regardless of party affiliation.
“The attitudes we’re seeing reflected on a national and state level are not attitudes that will bring us together. I would encourage everyone, no matter what party affiliation that they claim to, to be kind to their neighbor and turn off Fox News or MSNBC,” Tussey said.
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