Veteran Democratic activist Herb Pritchett of Henderson doesn’t mince words about his party’s predicament.
“We are not going to win just by being against Trump and against Bevin,” warned Pritchett, who’s on the Kentucky Democratic Party’s state central committee.
“We lost [in 2016] because we failed to address, and provide solutions, to those critical problems facing the working men and women and families of Kentucky. Until we do that, we deserve to lose.”
Critical problem-solving will top the agenda at a special West Kentucky Democratic Convention in Madisonville, the Hopkins County seat, on Nov. 18, said Pritchett, a First District representative on the central committee.
He lives toward the western end of the 35-county district, which sprawls 300 miles from the Mississippi River eastward to Casey County in south-central Kentucky.
When it encompassed the Jackson Purchase and western Pennyrile regions, the district was dubbed the state’s “Democratic Gibraltar” for its deep fealty to the party of Tom Jefferson and Andy Jackson. But in the “Old First,” like in most other parts of Kentucky, the political tides have shifted toward the GOP.
In 1994, voters sent Republican Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville to congress. Republican James Comer of Tompkinsville succeeded him last year.
The West KY Meeting
Pritchett hopes the Madisonville conclave will help reblue the district, or at least boost flagging Democratic ardor.
The agenda includes interactive panel discussions on a quartet of topics: pension reform, tax reform, health care and economic development.
The economic development panel will focus on Pritchett’s home turf. “We want to look at income inequality, lack of opportunity, and the hollowing out the rural areas of West Kentucky.”
Panelists include state Sen. Dorsey Ridley of Henderson and state Reps. Joni Jenkins of Louisville and Rick Rand of Bedford. Former state Reps. Mike Cherry (Princeton) and Brent Yonts (Greenville) are expected, too.
Other panelists will represent the Kentucky Center for Economic Progress, the Kentucky Education Association, and health care and economic development organizations.
State Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham of Eddyville will be the featured speaker.
Democratic Candidates and 2018 Prospects
Pritchett also hopes the conclave will produce a strong Democratic challenger to Comer. Sam Gaskins, from Hopkinsville, is the only announced Democratic candidate so far.
Last November, Comer buried Gaskins in a landslide, claiming nearly 73 percent of the vote against the Democrat, who was woefully short on money, organization and name recognition.
“We’re going to get together and decide, okay, who would have the best shot at beating Comer and try to come up with somebody.” He hopes a name other than Sam Gaskins might emerge. Pritchett and almost every other district Democratic leader doubts Gaskins can win a rematch with Comer.
Meanwhile, Pritchett thinks the table may be set for a Democratic comeback in the Bluegrass State and nationwide. He points to nine special elections for statehouses in five states. The Republicans flipped one, but the Democrats turned eight from red to blue.
President Trump carried seven of the eight legislative districts Democrats took.
“The bloom is coming off the rose,” said Pritchett, who likened Trump’s sagging popularity to dating. “You see somebody you want to go out with, but after a date or two you say to yourself, ‘What in the world was I thinking?’”
While the Democrats lost a seat in Republican Red Louisiana, they notched four takeaways in two more Trump states—Florida (one) and Oklahoma (three).
The other Democratic flips were in New York (one) and New Hampshire (three). Democrat Hillary Clinton won both states.
Pritchett thinks the triple bluing in Oklahoma has the most bearing on what might happen in Kentucky a year from this November. One state is about as Republican red as the other.
Trump won 62.5 percent of the vote in Kentucky and carried all but two of the state’s 120 counties—Fayette (Lexington) and Louisville (Jefferson). The president pocketed all 77 Sooner State counties and claimed 65.3 percent of the vote.
“You’ve got two similar states with similar populations,” Pritchett said. “Both are energy states—Oklahoma is heavy in oil and Kentucky heavy in coal.”
Pritchett conceded that many Democrats are still dispirited from Nov. 8. The Trump tsunami washed out a 53-47 state house Democratic majority. Only 36 Democrats survived. At the same time, the GOP maintained its 27-11 senate edge.
“The climate for Democratic candidates has improved significantly,” said Pritchett in his email. He cited what seems to be significant public disapproval of Gov. Matt Bevin’s just-unveiled plan to shore up the state’s underfunded pension systems in part by putting new hires in nonhazardous jobs under a 401(k)-type plan..
Pritchett said Democrats could reclaim four, maybe five, state house seats in the Pennyrile, including one in his home county of Henderson, of which the town of Henderson is the seat. He predicts that a soon-to-be-named Democratic candidate will defeat Robby Mills, the first-term GOP incumbent.
Pritchett is also confident that Democrats Jeff Taylor of Hopkinsville and Brent Yonts, Greenville, will return to the house. Taylor won a special March, 2016, special election. Yonts was a longtime lawmaker.
“Trump had unbelievable coattails in the First Congressional District,” Pritchett said, pointing to Taylor.
Taylor beat Republican Walker Thomas 59 to 41 percent in a March, 2016, special election. Thomas topped Walker 52-48 in November.
Taylor plans to challenge Thomas again in 2018. “I don’t think those Trump coattails will occur next year,” Pritchett predicted.
He also believes Yonts can reclaim his seat over Republican Melinda Gibbons Prunty who bested him last November. “I can see him returning,” said Pritchett who applied a memorable Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler quote to Prunty: “She’s all small potatoes and few to the row.”
The Pritchett Message to Dems
“We are winning and regaining ground,” said Pritchett in a morale-boosting email he sent to Democratic county committee members in his district. “It is time to yet again express our pride to be a Democrat and stand up for the policies that Democrats propose, to make the life of the working men, women, and their families in Kentucky better. The climate for Democrat candidates has improved significantly.
“Polls in rural areas show Governor Bevin’s approval below 50%. He is not popular and I believe will get less so. Trump’s approval, while barely positive, has decreased some 7 percentage points over the 60 days.”
Pritchett waxed, “There is a harvest out there to be gathered but to gather it, we Democrats must have candidates in the fields ready to gather it. Hence, I urge you and your candidate recruitment committees to begin actively soliciting good Democrats who would make good candidates to run for office. There are races that can be won, with the right candidates, having the right message, working smartly to gather that harvest and win.”
He added that candidates can start filing period opens next month and closes in January. “Now is the time to identify and propose those who would make great candidates,” he urged.
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