URGENT: Kentucky Special Elections

As we look ahead to 2018, the question hangs out there for all: can Kentucky Democrats gain ground? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

On the evening of November 8, 2016, Kentucky Democrats were hoping against hope that they would be able to retain their majority in the Kentucky House. They understood that their slim House majority was all that had held back the onslaught of Governor Bevin’s full agenda in 2017. There was some reason for hope, in that the Democrats had won 3 of 4 special elections races in March of 2016 after 4 legislators left the Kentucky House to assume administrative posts in the Bevin administration.

What transpired that evening has uniformly been described as a massacre. The Democrats lost 17 of their 53 Seats in the Kentucky House and are now reduced to a mere 36 seats out of 100. The results in the General Assembly in 2017 have been predictable. The GOP passed right-to-work, repealed the prevailing wage, and assaulted both reproductive rights and the  integrity of the public school systems in the state.

But Wait … It’s Not as Bad as You Think

A close examination at the election results, however, suggests that the herculean task in front of Progressive groups in the state may be a bit more manageable than it first appears.

  • Many General Assembly races were very close, including several which Democratic candidates won.
  • The total margin in the 17 races that the Democrats lost was just over 33,000 votes.
  • However, in the 15 closest races that narrows to just over 22,000 votes. If the Democrats had prevailed in those 15 races, they would have retained their majority.
  • In the six closest races, the average vote difference was 330 votes—or less than a 2% margin of difference.

In the context of the 2016 election it is important to point out that Hillary Clinton lost to President Trump by a margin of 574,000 votes. Jim Grey did considerably better, but still lost by 277,000 votes. Theoretically, Democratic candidates could have retained their majority in the House if they had convinced as few as 11,250 people, out of more than 1,923,000 who voted, to vote for the Democratic candidate in the House races.

2016 was in many ways an ideal year for GOP candidates in Kentucky. They were flush with cash from outside groups. The Democrats had a top-of-the-ticket candidate who was quite unpopular in Kentucky. Rand Paul’s race also generated a lot of interest from Republicans. And, the Kentucky GOP itself was also flush with cash from many groups outside the state, and dramatically outspent the Democrats.

What to Do to Win in 2018

With these facts in mind, Progressive organizations and Kentucky Democrats should approach 2018 with an understanding that they can likely make more of a comeback than at first appears possible. Part of the strategy must be to recruit and prepare candidates to run in each and every General Assembly seat. In 2016, 25 GOP House candidates did not have a challenger, compared to 11 Democratic legislators who were unopposed. Turning from playing defense to playing offense will require recruiting viable candidates to run everywhere in the state.

The Kentucky Democratic Party does not have the capacity to do this alone. However, the overreach of the GOP both nationally and in the state has given rise to fierce resistance groups across the state, who have mostly been focused on issue work and protests during the legislative sessions.

However, when John Yarmuth spoke to Indivisible Kentucky recently, he sagely advised that if they do not expand to include electoral politics in their scope of actions, and work to elect people who are open to their concerns, they will accomplish very little. This includes cultivating Democratic candidates and supporting them.

Can we win in 2018? Absolutely. But for both the party and the activism groups, the lesson is clear: We need to start this work now, because the clock is ticking.

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Greg Leichty
Greg Leichty is a professor of Communication at the University of Louisville. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of conflict management and social movements. He has been involved in several social justice organizations in the Louisville area over the last decade.