With any luck, the election results on Nov. 8 will determine the outcome of what’s been an unconventional presidential race. We’ll also learn the fate of a former presidential candidate who hopes to continue to represent Kentucky in the U.S. Senate, and whether the state House of Representatives flips to Republican control for the first time in nearly 100 years.
Two younger voices in state politics appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the elections. Iris Wilbur is a Republican operative who served as political director for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2014 reelection campaign. Colmon Elridge is a former executive vice president of the Young Democrats of America and he served as executive assistant and senior adviser to former Gov. Steve Beshear.
Trump, Clinton, and Coal
The general consensus is that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will win in the commonwealth, says Wilbur. But she’s critical of his overall performance as a candidate. She says Trump has been unable to remain focused on jobs, the economy, and changing the culture in Washington. Wilbur says the GOP has a winning message – if the New York billionaire will only stick with it.
“The last bit of this campaign will be telling to show if Mr. Trump can bring the broad base of conservative support into one big umbrella coalition,” Wilbur says.
Personality and likability will always be a factor, Wilbur says, but in the end, she says voters want to know their presidential candidate can do the job.
Elridge acknowledges that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had her own problems on the stump, saying the Democrat will be better at being president than she is campaigning for it. Clinton’s most notorious gaffe where many Kentuckians are concerned came during a town hall forum last spring, when she said her energy policies would put many coal miners and companies out of business.
“Secretary Clinton said something, let’s just face it, that was extraordinarily stupid,” Elridge says. “But she took ownership of that and then pointed out that she’s the only candidate for president that has actually put out a plan for eastern Kentucky… to not only keep the industry where it is but to also help those that have lost their jobs.”
Elridge also says Clinton had a reputation of reaching across the aisle during her time the Senate, and that congressional Republicans know they can work with her.
Whoever wins the election, Elridge says they will face partisan gamesmanship. He contends that the country will need to heal after this election and that the new president and the Congress must prove that they can work together to do what’s right for the American people.
The U.S. Senate Race
Even though the available polling shows U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is likely to win his re-election bid, Wilbur says the Republican must follow through with his ground game to ensure the victory. She says Paul has done a great job of touting his first-term record and connecting directly with voters through a series of public forums and other meet-and-greet events. The senator had faced criticism for shifting his attentions and resources from his re-election campaign to his failed bid for president earlier in this election cycle.
It’s been more of an uphill battle for Paul’s Democratic challenger, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. Elridge acknowledges that Gray didn’t have much statewide name recognition before entering the race, but he says the Democrat is gaining momentum in the final days of the campaign. He says he would encourage Gray to focus on telling voters how he would work as senator to benefit Kentucky in ways that Paul hasn’t. Elridge adds that Gray must also prove how he’s different from national Democratic leaders like President Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton who are unpopular in Kentucky.
Gray needs to garner significant margins in urban Fayette and Jefferson Counties if he hopes to offset the advantage Paul has in rural parts of the state. Wilbur says that’s the only path to victory for the Democrat. But a poll conducted by the Republican-leaning RunSwitch PR in Louisville shows Paul and Gray essentially tied in Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky.
The Battle for the State House
As much attention as the presidential race has garnered, a more direct impact for Kentuckians will be felt in the races for the state House. Republicans hope to finally flip the chamber that is the last Democrat-controlled state legislative body in the South.
“These are quality Republican nominees that are trying to change the status quo, trying to remind voters that… what affects your daily life is what is coming out of Frankfort,” Wilbur says. “And guess who’s been in control since 1921? It’s been the same old crew.”
Wilbur says the coal issue favors Republicans, and that the GOP’s policies more closely align with the values of Kentuckians. She says those messages are resonating with traditionally Democratic voters, especially in the Appalachian counties. Wilbur points to how House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg is fending off a challenge from Republican Larry Brown, an attorney in Floyd County. Instead of allocating resources to keeping other Democratic House seats, Wilbur says the Kentucky Democratic Party is having to spend money to defend Stumbo.
Thanks to a more robust GOP recruitment effort, only 11 Democratic House incumbents are unchallenged this year, where the party had 25 unopposed incumbents just two years ago. Despite the Republican momentum, Elridge says he’s optimistic that Democrats will retain their majority in the chamber. He says constituents personally know their Democratic representatives and won’t be swayed by attack ads Republicans have launched against them.
Elridge says voters know that House Democrats have stood up to GOP Gov. Matt Bevin to protect education funding, the state’s Medicaid expansion, and the independence of some state boards.
“The people of Kentucky have proof now that there do need to be some checks and balances in Frankfort,” Elridge says.