In Kentucky at least, the dust has largely settled on the 2018 elections. Although Democrats hoped to make a big splash in state legislative races and in one Congressional race, Republicans largely maintained their stronghold on the commonwealth.
To analyze the midterm election results and look forward to the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, KET’s Kentucky Tonight talked with a group of political observers and party operatives. The guests were Cassie Chambers Armstrong, vice-chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party; former Republican state legislator Bob Heleringer, an attorney in Louisville; Jonathan Miller, former state treasurer and former chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party; and Amy Wickliffe, a lobbyist with McCarthy Strategic Solutions.
The Urban-Rural Divide in KY-6
Some polling had the 6th Congressional District race in a dead heat, but in the end U.S. Rep. Andy Barr won re-election over Democrat Amy McGrath by 9,738 votes, a margin slightly over 3 percent. McGrath carried Fayette and Franklin Counties, while Barr took the remaining 17 counties.
“It really is a reflection not of her campaign nor even Andy Barr’s campaign,” Miller says. “[It’s] more of a reflection of what our country is doing in terms of realigning and how the cities are becoming so deep blue and rural areas are becoming so deep red.”
As a political outsider and as woman, McGrath was the perfect candidate for this year’s race, according to Miller. But he says the geographic math put the retired Marine at a disadvantage.
Amy Wickliffe agrees with Miller’s urban-rural divide theory, but she says there was another important factor.
“What we have to go back to is voters in the 6th Congressional District are pleased with the way the economy is going,” Wickliffe says, “and they attribute a lot of that to the changes that we’ve seen on the federal level.”
Wickliffe also contends that McGrath was simply too liberal for the more conservative voters in the district’s outlying counties.
But Cassie Chambers Armstrong rejects the notion that Democrats can’t win in rural Kentucky any more. She points to several Democrats who won state legislative races in eastern and western parts of the commonwealth. Plus, she says McGrath’s campaign helped energize Democrats and women voters across the state. Armstrong says the next round of Democratic candidates will build on that energy and organization.
“In the past we have been the party of the working-class people, of people in eastern Kentucky, and people in areas that are struggling,” Armstrong says. “I think we’re on track to become that again and I think the infrastructure that Amy built well help us get there.”
District Map Helps Democrats in KY-3
Geography is also an issue in the 3rd Congressional District in Jefferson County, but there it creates a challenge for Republicans. Last week, Democratic incumbent John Yarmuth won his fourth term in office, defeating Republican Vickie Yates Brown Glisson by more than 70,000 votes.
Bob Heleringer says the problem arises from redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census. He says the redistricting plan moved traditional Republican strongholds in eastern Jefferson County out of the 3rd District and placed those neighborhoods into the 4th District, which he says already tended to favor the GOP.
“So the 3rd District that elected [conservative Republican] Anne Northup for 10 years doesn’t exist any more,” Heleringer says. “The 3rd is basically unwinnable because of that.”
If all of Jefferson County is restored to the 3rd after the 2020 census and redistricting, Heleringer says Republicans would become more competitive again. But Miller says Congressman Yarmuth, who he describes as an icon in Louisville, will retain the seat as long as he wants it.
State Legislative Races
GOP state House incumbents Phil Moffett and Ken Fleming also came up short in suburban districts in parts of Jefferson and Oldham Counties. Heleringer attributes those losses to a different problem.
“I think [President Donald] Trump was an issue [with] suburban Republican women,” he says. “Those losses in those particular areas should send a message to our party.”
Democrats also narrowly picked up a handful of state House seats in eastern and western Kentucky. But Democrats were unable to eliminate the GOP supermajority in the House, where the head count will now stand at 61 Republicans and 39 Democrats.
“By and large our problem was retirements: They were able to take four of our retiring Democratic seats,” says Armstrong. “Retirements are hard. Statistically those are more likely to switch parties and so those are just hard to defend.”
“To only lose two seats in this election cycle, which, coming off the heels of a very contentious legislative session, I think is tremendous,” says Wickliffe. “I think that voters like what they see in Republicans. I think we will continue to make gains.”
In the state Senate, Republicans did increase their majority there and will hold 28 of the chamber’s 38 seats. The GOP picked up the 4th Senatorial district in western Kentucky where current state Rep. Robby Mills, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democrat Dorsey Ridley by nearly 500 votes.
As it turns out, the threats by teachers and public employees angry over the pension issue to “remember in November” largely didn’t pan out at the ballot box. Heleringer says the issue clearly didn’t resonate with the mass of voters beyond those constituencies.
The 2019 Kentucky General Assembly
Can Democrats be relevant in Frankfort with Republican control of the state House and Senate as well as the governor’s office?
“Nature abhors a vacuum, but politics abhors one-party rule,” says Miller.
In the mid-20th century, Miller says, majority Democrats broke into factions around former Gov. and Sen. A.B. “Happy” Chandler and former Gov. Bert T. Combs.
“I think that if Republicans continue this dominance, you’re going to see those kinds of cleavages, with Democrats siding with [one of the factions] on major issues,” he says.
Miller adds that a rift emerged in the 2018 session among Republicans who supported former House Speaker Jeff Hoover against allegations of sexual misconduct, and those who sided with Gov. Matt Bevin in calling for Hoover’s resignation. Heleringer agrees that such a split could occur among House Republicans, but is far less likely among the more cohesive Senate GOP caucus.
The 2019 session will also see new faces in the leadership of both parties. In the House, Wickliffe says Rep. David Osborne of Prospect is expected to seek the speakership again, but Majority Whip Kevin Bratcher of Louisville is stepping down from his post. Republicans also need a new Majority Floor Leader following the defeat of Lancaster Rep. Jonathan Shell in the May primaries.
In the Senate, Democrats must replace Ridley, who served as minority caucus chair, and Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones, who is stepping down to become Pike County Judge-Executive.
With more females set to serve in the General Assembly, Heleringer says he hopes women will vie for the open leadership positions.
As for the issues to watch in the session, Miller and Armstrong say they expect to see additional efforts addressing tax and pension reform on the agenda. Armstrong says Republicans will need to fix problems with last year’s tax package, such as the taxes levied on non-profit organizations. And they may have to redo the pension overhaul if the Kentucky Supreme Court rules the current version to be unconstitutional.
Wickliffe says lawmakers must also address infrastructure funding. She says that should be a bipartisan issue around which a broad coalition can unite to find a sustainable solution to the state’s road and bridge needs.
The 2019 Governor’s Race
After some initial questions about his future, Gov. Matt Bevin confirmed in late August that he will seek re-election next year. Wickliffe says the Republican is well situated for victory, given record levels of new investments and jobs that Bevin has helped bring to the state.
“The tide has turned in Kentucky,” she says. “Kentucky voters clearly like what they have seen over these past two years when it comes to policies.”
Bevin still remains unpopular among many Kentuckians, though. The latest Morning Consult poll of gubernatorial rankings has Bevin at 55 percent disapproval and 30 percent approval.
Miller says Bevin’s re-election chances could hinge on what happens in the 2019 General Assembly. He says Bevin will be helped if the session goes smoothly and Republicans make legislative gains like they did in 2017. But Miller says the governor could have problems if Republicans have a contentious and dysfunctional session like he says they experienced earlier this year.
Armstrong contends that Bevin is vulnerable and she says Democrats will have a number of good candidates vying to challenge the incumbent next year. Current state Attorney General Andy Beshear has already launched his gubernatorial bid, and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins is expected to announce this week.
Some wonder if Amy McGrath might make a run for the office, as her Congressional campaign manager Mark Nickolas has suggested. Miller says McGrath has developed a good fundraising network and strong base of support among women. But he also says McGrath, who is the mother of three young children, may not want to immediately subject herself and her family to another year of campaigning.
Heleringer says it’s not out of the question that Bevin could face a primary challenger next year. As for the Democratic side, he thinks state Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson would make formidable challenger to Bevin in the general election. He says Webb is not a “whacked-out liberal” but a pro-life and pro-Second Amendment lawmaker from a rural area who has a good grasp on many of the issues facing the commonwealth.
Looking Further Ahead
The year 2020 will bring another round of Congressional races, a re-election bid for Sen. Mitch McConnell, and a presidential campaign.
Miller says Democrats must select a presidential nominee who not only plays well nationally, but that can make Kentucky competitive again. He says such a candidate would need to embrace what he calls a traditional Democratic message that can resonate with rural and working class voters and not just urban liberals.
”We need to have a Democratic candidate for president who runs in Kentucky,” Miller says. “We haven’t had that since Bill Clinton. Every year since then, Democrats have given up on Kentucky.”
Miller says that it’s hard for Democratic candidates to get to 270 electoral votes without winning the commonwealth. He says such a candidate may have to emerge from political obscurity, much like Donald Trump did in the Republican ranks during 2016. Heleringer says that’s not likely given that the current crop of potential Democratic contenders includes candidates he describes as far left in political ideology, such as U.S. Senators Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“That’s a forlorn hope to try to recapture that Bill Clinton-esque type of Democratic candidate that would appeal to a state like Kentucky,” says Heleringer. “There’s nobody like that almost left in the Democratic Party that’s a governor, that’s a senator, that’s somebody that would have the gravitas to put together a presidential campaign.”
Even though President Trump remains widely popular across the commonwealth, Armstrong says Democrats are starting to recover from the widespread losses they endured during the “Trump wave” of 2016. She contends that will bode well for Democrats up and down the ticket in 2020.
“In 12 solidly leaning Republican district, districts that solidly went for Donald Trump, Republicans saw their margins go down between 12 to 25 percent,” Armstrong says of this year’s vote. “To me that says Democrats did gain a lot of ground.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell will also seek re-election in 2020. Wickliffe says the Senate Majority Leader is building a legacy around his work to confirm dozens of Republican judicial nominees to the federal courts. Heleringer says he thinks those judges and justices will adhere to the Constitution and not seek to legislate from the bench.
Miller says he hopes McConnell’s legacy won’t be about reshaping the courts, but instead about fostering the permanent legalization of industrial hemp.