Ben Self Says "Stop Being Republican Lite"

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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“The people don’t want a phony Democrat,” President Harry Truman warned in 1952. “If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time.”

In rural Kentucky, Democratic candidates often duck or downplay their party affiliation. Some won’t put “Democrat” on their bumper stickers or signs.

They sprint from the national party. They especially eschew the “liberal” label and call themselves “Kentucky Democrats.”

“A lot of times [Democrats] say in Kentucky, ‘We’re a little bit different’ or ‘We’re a different Democratic party,” admitted Ben Self, the new state party chair. “I say, ‘No, we’re the exact same Democratic party.”

Let that sink in.

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Ben Self, new KDP chair

Self continued: “Instead of talking about the hot button issue of the day, the Republican party wants to talk about, we need to focus on, and talk about, the things that are important to everyday Kentuckians.”

Self fans include Daniel Hurt of Grand Rivers, who chairs the Livingston County Democratic Executive Committee. Hurt, 24, thinks Self’s strategy will work in rural counties like Livingston.

“Most importantly, the people of Livingston County and western Kentucky want opportunities to get jobs so they can provide for their families,” said Hurt, also a member of the state party central executive committee and the special committee that nominated Self.

Grand Rivers is a long way—physically and philosophically—from Louisville and Lexington. Kentucky’s two largest cities, they’re Democratic enclaves in the increasingly Republican red Bluegrass State.

Daniel Hurt

Rural Kentucky is mostly Bible-belt conservative country. Here, Republicans commonly clobber Democrats on the so-called social issues, which a veteran Bluegrass State union leader calls “the Three Gs”: God, guns, and gays.

Hurt says social issues are “Washington issues.”

He explained, “People don’t want to be distracted by these Washington issues the Republicans bring in because the Republicans don’t know, or don’t care, about the local issues that are really important to the people. They just want to win, so they are going to bring up the obvious controversial issues.”

Even so, many Democratic office-seekers in rural Kentucky hop on the social issues bandwagon. Many lose to “the genuine article” anyway.

Lexington microbrewer Self thinks that Democrats can win on three different Gs: Good jobs, good healthcare, and good pensions.

[tweet_box design=”box_12_at” float=”none” author=”Ben Self” pic_url=”/content/images/wordpress/2017/11/BenSelf.jpg”]We can win on our own 3 Gs: Good jobs, Good healthcare, and Good pensions.[/tweet_box]

“We believe that everybody who works for a living should have enough money to put food on the table and a roof over their heads and save some money for retirement and to go on a vacation every once in a while,” he said.

“We believe that no one in the entire state of Kentucky should die for lack of access to health care, or should die because they had a preexisting condition that the Republicans have decided to allow back in the health care system.

“Nothing else matters if you can’t afford a place to live and a healthy life and something to eat. We need to be talking about that because we’re the only party that represents everyday Americans on those issues.”

In a recent statement, Self also cited a trio of “amazing things” he said his party has accomplished in the last 60 years, “from the state park system in the 1950s, our community college system in the 1960s, and the country-leading implementation of the Affordable Care Act [Kynect] here in Kentucky.”

Self said the Trump-Republican tax bill and GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s pension plan are ready-made issues for Democrats.

The people who would most benefit from the GOP tax proposals in Congress are the rich and “not your everyday Kentuckians,” according to Self.

Bevin’s bill to shore up the state’s underfunded public pension plans would trim some benefits for employees and retirees and force most new hires into risky 401(k)-type plans. The proposal has stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition statewide.

“The governor has declared war on our teachers, our public-sector employees, and on everyone who really depends on these pensions,” Self said. “Our governor and the current majority in the House and Senate don’t have the best interests of the people in mind. They are interested in protecting their buddies.”

It could be argued that Democrats can’t win in rural districts without joining the GOP choir on the social issues and that Democrats survive in counties like Hurt’s only by crooning to the Republican tune.

But the dearth of Democrats in Frankfort and in Kentucky’s delegation in Washington seems to prove that a lot of Democrats who run “Republican Lite” campaigns aren’t winning.

Hurt added that Democrats who run as “Republican Lite” candidates in hopes of winning over Republicans—many of them unwinnable—risk alienating Democrats who might even opt not to vote.

“Some Republicans won’t vote Democratic no matter what—look at Roy Moore in Alabama. Losing base voters can make a difference in close races,” Hurt said.

Of late, Kentucky voters:

  • Elected Republican Matt Bevin governor in 2015.
  • Gave Donald Trump 62.5 percent of their ballots last November. (Trump carried 118 of the state’s 120 counties.)
  • Flipped the state House of Representatives from 53-47 Democratic to 64-36 Republican and sustained the GOP’s 27-11 state Senate bulge.
  • Reelected Republican Sen. Rand Paul and sent a quintet of Republicans back to the House of Representatives, again leaving John Yarmuth of Louisville the state’s sole Democrat on Capitol Hill.

A year ago, the GOP rolled on historic straight-ticket Republican voting. In the heyday of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman, most Kentuckians voted the straight Democratic ticket.

As a result, Roosevelt carried Kentucky in landslides all four times he ran. Truman, whose running mate was Alben Barkley of Paducah, captured almost 57 percent of the vote in 1948.

It’s true that when Roosevelt was in the White House and Truman was a Missouri senator, Kentucky had been tilting toward the Democrats for decades. Tradition is a powerful impetus for voting.

Yet it is also true that Roosevelt’s Depression-fighting New Deal, hugely popular in Kentucky, was firmly rooted in economic issues like providing public works jobs for the jobless, government-guided economic development (National Recovery Administration and TVA), Social Security, and support for unions.

Meanwhile, Trump’s presidency has triggered a tsunami of grassroots opposition, starting with the Women’s March on Washington in January, which drew as many as 500,000 people. The protest inspired hundreds of similar marches nationwide, including a trio in Kentucky—in Louisville, Lexington and Murray.

Recently, Democrats won big in New Jersey and Virginia. Since Trump was inaugurated, Democrats, in special elections, reportedly have flipped 33 state legislative seats in districts the president won. A quartet are in Oklahoma; Trump carried every Sooner State county.

“We need to harness the energy that [Republican policies] have given many, many of our activists out there,” Self said.

It’s hard to imagine many anti-Republican activists getting fired up about more Kentucky Democrats they’d scorn as “Republican Lite.”

Hurt agrees. “But we need to strike a balance between the activist, grassroots side of the party and the more establishment wing,” he cautioned. “The establishment wing is not bad. It’s just that their ideas sometimes get stale and need to be refreshed.”

Self is a refresher, according to Hurt. In addition to doing more to solidify the party base, he hopes Self and other Democratic leaders will “reach out and welcome moderate Republicans. We should be saying to them, ‘If your values are not being represented by the party of Trump and Roy Moore, you are welcome to join us.’”

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