When I tell people I ran for Metro Council in 2014 and lost, I jokingly say “it wasn’t a good night for the Blue team.”
But when we look at this year’s candidate filings for the General Assembly, it’s clear it’s going to be a bad year for the Blue team – and it’s no joke.
Between the districts where no one filed at all, and the ones where the single candidate ultimately withdrew, the Dems left 9 of the 19 races for state Senate uncontested. And in the House, they left 40 of 100 races with no Dem candidate at all.
Statistically, the Senate surrender is worse (47% to 40%). But having the Republicans start the election season with 40 sure seats in the House before the first vote is cast is just a gut punch if you’re a Kentucky Dem.
So, what can we say about this? Is the lay of the land this bad? Are there strategic reasons for leaving some seats unchallenged? Or is this just another indicator of the weakness of the Democratic Party in Kentucky?
There is no doubt that recruiting people to run as Dems in certain parts of the state — perhaps even most of the state — is hard. Gone are the days when Democrats were competitive all across Kentucky. The state has gone hard Red, which is clear to anyone who can read a map.
I had one person who had worked hard on candidate recruitment say, “I will say recruiting in a lot of areas was just brutal. Trying to recruit someone into the toxic environment that is Frankfort and the environment for Ds in some of the areas - Wow!”
I mean, why “out” yourself as a Democrat when all your friends and neighbors have Trump signs in their yards? And why spend the time, energy, and money to try to compete, only to lose by 40 points – or more?
In some cases, there were teams working for the past six months to recruit candidates, only to not be able to find anyone willing to run. So yes, one reason for the dismal recruiting results is that it is just Tough to recruit Dem candidates for some seats.
There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to lining up candidates. One is that you study the landscape, then only work on the races you think you can win. (More on the alternative in a minute.)
You see this most clearly in the Republican filings. They left 10 seats (out of 100) unchallenged in the House. Why? Because when you look at those districts, it is clear that the Dem is going to win. These are heavily Democratic districts, and money spent there would be money wasted.
So yes, there are strategic decisions to be made. Perhaps some of the races left on the table were ones that the persons putting together the recruiting plan (there was a plan, right?) decided just weren’t the effort to find a candidate.
But note that the Repubs only gave up on 10 seats (and 1 in the Senate), while Dems gave up on 40 seats (!) and 9 in the Senate. Were all of those due to targeted efforts? And even if they were, was that the right strategic decision?
In 2005, after losing the Democratic nomination for president the previous year, Dr. Howard Dean became head of the Democratic National Committee. He immediately pursued what he called the “50-state strategy,” which Wikipedia describes as “putting resources into building a Democratic Party presence even where Democrats had been thought unlikely to win federal positions, in hopes that getting Democrats elected to local and state positions, and increasing awareness of Democrats in previously conceded areas, would result in growing successes in future elections.”
I was a huge Dean fan, and even more of a fan of the 50-state strategy (which would be the 120-County Strategy in Kentucky). Basically, it’s very simple: you run everywhere, even when you know you’re going to lose. Why? For some simple, but strategic, reasons:
- It ties up the time, energy, and most importantly the money, of your opponent. Otherwise, they can work for other Repub candidates, and direct their donors to those other candidates as well. It also takes time away from the Repubs having the time to dig even deeper into their own recruitment work.
- It lets people know that Yes, there are actually Democrats in our county – and it’s okay to be a Dem, no matter what your preacher says.
- It gives you, the candidate, the learning experience of running a campaign. As has been noted about many endeavors, your best campaign will be your second one, when you put into practice all the lessons you learned in the first one.
- It starts other people thinking about being a candidate themselves. “Why, I know that person. If THEY can run for office, why can’t I?” It can begin a snowball effect, not only for state races, but for local ones as well.
Yes, the 120-county strategy is hard work, and costs more money. It requires local parties, and the state party, to be more organized. And, it requires a long-term vision and a long-term strategy, instead of only focusing on the race right in front of you.
As I noted in “How to be an effective local party, and not a failed one,” the first job of any county party is building a bench – a collection of possible candidates that you have vetted, talked with, and lined up. Instead of having a meeting a few weeks before the filing deadline where you wail “who can we get to run,” you start months earlier, going through your bench and considering who has the best shot at winning each race in your county and district.
And that bench should have both veteran campaigners and newbies on it. You have to be constantly bringing in new faces, and not just relying on the old-timers. Republicans have been doing this for years: identifying young adults that show potential, getting them involved in campaigns, and then lining them up to “run for something.”
So, while I acknowledge the hard work, the tough landscape, and the possibility of strategic decisions, to me the overall read of this year’s Democratic candidate recruitment is ... Terrible. Leaving 40 seats uncontested is, in my opinion, just inexcusable. And it reveals the state of our party at all levels.
We can point fingers — and trust me, I’ve talked to enough people who are more than happy to do the pointing — but the bottom line is that this has to change. Local parties and the state party have to start working NOW for 2024. KDP has to extend its vision and planning, and get the local parties to do the same. And if the local party isn’t functional, do something about it; don’t just accept the status quo.
Can we turn the entire state blue again? No. But that doesn’t mean we have to surrender the entire state, either. We need to design our own 120-County Strategy, with solid goals and even more solid plans. And then execute those plans.
Tough? Yes. Targeted? Perhaps. Terrible? For this cycle, definitely. That is the reality we have to face. The question is, what are WE — KDP, local parties, activists, voters — going to do about it? Are we going to commit ourselves to a long-term plan and long-term hard work? Or are we going to shrug and say “it’s just a bad year for the Blue team” and accept it?
Because if we accept this as the “new normal” for Dems in Kentucky, next time it will be 50 or even 60 seats that we concede.
But if we do the former — if we commit to a 120-county strategy — we have a chance to revitalize and rebuild the Dem party, brand, and election record in the future.
That’s the choice, Dems. I know which path I would choose. How about you?