Democrat Charlotte Goddard was campaigning door-to-door in a working-class Mayfield neighborhood when she spotted a Ten Commandments sign in the front yard of a modest house.
The occupant, a woman, was a registered Democrat, according to VoteBuilder, a computer program Democratic candidates use to identify Democratic voters.
“I’d been rather frequently hearing from people that you can’t be a Christian and a Democrat,” recalled Goddard, the unsuccessful Second House District candidate. “I thought to myself, ‘Should I just turn around and walk away?’”
Goddard knocked on the door and the woman invited her inside.
“She asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican. When I said I was a Democrat she said that based on the Bible she can’t vote for a Democrat and brought up abortion and gays.”
Canvassing in an affluent neighborhood in the Graves County seat, Goddard met a man who told her he was a registered Democrat. “He said he just couldn’t support Democrats because of the abortion and gay issues – and guns. Guns came up a lot, although I don’t see how that’s Biblical.”
The Three Gs, once again
Goddard and a slew of Democrats in small-town and rural Kentucky lost on the social issues. “I call them the ‘Three G’s—God, guns, and gays,” said Larry Sanderson a veteran Bluegrass State union leader from Paducah, the main town in the Jackson Purchase, westernmost Kentucky.
Republicans trotted out the Three Gs going on 40 years ago. Since, they’ve almost routinely been winning among white evangelical Christians in rural, Bible-Belt states like Kentucky.
Seventy-six percent of Kentuckians are Christians, according to the Pew Research Center. Most of them—49 percent—are evangelical Protestants. The majority of Kentucky evangelicals are white, too.
Donald Trump ran for president on the Three Gs, while also pandering to racism, sexism, misogyny, nativism, religious bigotry, and LGBTQ prejudice. Trump demolished Democrat Hillary Clinton in nearly 88 percent white Kentucky.
On the campaign trail, Goddard and many other Democratic office seekers found, to their chagrin, that the president is still popular in the state.
Democrat Duane Bolin, a retired Murray State University history professor, can’t figure why so many white evangelicals dote on The Donald.
“Trump represents everything they should be against,” said Bolin, who grew up a Southern Baptist, but has switched to Episcopalian.
Trump is twice divorced and thrice married. He’s evidently a serial adulterer. He talks dirty. He’s less than well-versed in Holy scripture. He seems to prefer golf to going to church on Sunday.
Apparently, white evangelicals don’t care that the president fails to practice what their pastors preach about “Godly behavior,” at least on a personal level.
But conservative white evangelicals love the hedonist Trump because he loves them for their votes.
“We” versus “They”
“It’s an in-group-out-group thing,” said David Nickell, a sociology professor at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, where I taught history for two dozen years.
“They see him as ‘one of us.’ He opposes ‘our enemy.’ The people ‘we’ don’t like don’t like him; therefore, he’s ‘our’ guy.”
Added Nickell: “You can’t have a ‘we’ without a ‘they.’ The stronger the sense of threat from the out group, the stronger the solidarity of the in group.”
Polls show Trump is “‘our guy” to a whopping majority of white evangelicals. The president’s standing among them “has remained virtually unchanged at 71 percent, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll conducted in late August and early September,” wrote Tara Isabella Burton in Vox last month. “Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. White evangelicals remain the only religious group in America to view Trump favorably, according to the poll.”
The rural-urban divide
While thousands of rural Kentuckians cast ballots on the three Gs, most urban voters apparently don’t. Louisville and Lexington have become the Democrats’ most reliable source of votes. Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington) are the only counties Clinton carried.
Figuring out how to win over rural voters while simultaneously holding urban voters is, or will be, a hot topic at Democratic election postmortems. The Republicans are counting on the Three Gs making that balancing act mission impossible.
If the Democrats try to out-Republican the Republicans on the social issues, they’ll alienate their urban base. Their dilemma reflects the old Puritan lament: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Damned if you will, damned if you won’t.”
Republicans ran on Trump, but not Bevin
Goddard lost in a landslide to Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield. He outpolled her 10,880 to 4,922 in the Jackson Purchase constituency that includes Graves County and a small part of southern McCracken County, of which Paducah is the seat.
Hard-right Republicans like Heath romped in most parts of rural Kentucky.
Trump made the election about him. So did most GOP candidates for the Kentucky statehouse. They seldom missed a chance to pledge their fealty to the president.
While Trump has a big fan base in rural Kentucky, Matt Bevin evidently doesn’t. An October Morning Consult tracking poll showed only 30 percent of Kentuckians approve of his job as governor; 55 percent disapprove.
The dismal numbers ranked him 46th in popularity among state chief executives.
Democrats went into the election buoyed by Bevin’s apparent unpopularity and by massive teacher opposition to GOP pension legislation. Educators and their supporters rallied at the Capitol in droves while the General Assembly was in session. The demonstrations were some of the largest protests in state history.
The Democrats knew they almost certainly couldn’t flip the House and Senate in one fell swoop. But many were convinced that they could significantly slash the GOP’s supermajorities.
“We will remember in November!” protesters shouted in Frankfort. Democrats and their supporters made it their battle cry.
The GOP counted on social issues and love-of-Trump to stem a Democratic tide in conservative, churchgoing, and gun-toting rural counties.
So for the umpteenth time, the Republicans played their social issues trump card on the stump and in an avalanche of mailers portraying Kentucky Democrats as Washington-style, abortion-loving, gun-hating liberals who were out of step with “conservative Kentucky values.”
The Blue Wave that swept away the GOP’s U.S. House majority was barely a ripple in the Bluegrass State. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville is still the only Democrat among Kentucky’s two senators and half-dozen congressmen.
The GOP upped its state Senate edge by one seat, to 28-10. In the state House, the Democrats netted only two seats, trimming the Republican bulge to 61-39.
The election all but ended western Kentucky’s historical fealty to the Democrats. No Democrat occupies a House seat west of Henderson County. No Democratic senator dwells west of Interstate 65, according to Henderson city Democratic activist Herb Pritchett.
The legion of losing candidates in West Kentucky
In Pritchett’s neck of the woods, the legion of losing candidates included, besides Goddard, Abigail Barnes of Salem in Livingston County, and Jeff Taylor, who lives in Hopkinsville, the Christian County seat.
Neither Goddard nor Barnes, who sought the Fourth District seat, had run before. Barnes’ western Pennyrile district encompasses Caldwell, Crittenden, and Livingston counties and part of Christian County.
Taylor found himself in a rubber game against Hopkinsville Republican Walker Thomas, who represents the Eight District. Also in the western Pennyrile, the district includes Trigg County and part of Christian County.
In March, 2016, Taylor topped Thomas in a special election. Thomas rebounded to win the general election. On Nov. 6, he piled up 5,285 votes to 4,815 for Taylor.
Goddard, Barnes, and Taylor ran on pro-union, pro-public education platforms. They hit hard on pocketbook issues, calling for good jobs and good healthcare.
While Heath hugged Trump and the Three Gs, Goddard didn’t flee her vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s also pro-choice and supports what she calls “common-sense gun control.”
Barnes and Taylor oppose abortion except in the case of rape or incest or if having the baby would endanger a woman’s life. Both also describe themselves as “pro-Second Amendment.” While Taylor got close to Walker, Barnes trailed incumbent Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, 10,003 to 5,763.
And the Republicans’ piece de resistance: flat-out lying
“Republicans’ legislative gains were driven by the huge financial advantage the party enjoys by holding the governorship and majorities in both houses,” wrote Al Cross in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “In addition to the advantage of incumbency, they also benefited from close to $1 million spent by outside groups, much of it on ads (many false or misleading) attacking Democrats.”
Taylor had sent out mailers saying he opposed abortion. On gun control, he’d go no further than banning bump-stocks.
Nonetheless, GOP mailers, print, electronic, and social media ads and robo-calls portrayed him as pro-abortion and anti-gun. “I actually put a picture of me in front of my gun cabinet on Facebook to prove I’m a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said.
No sooner did the attacks start than voters, including some teachers, started phoning and leaving him messages: “Where are you on gun control? Where are you on abortion?” Taylor said he’d been answering those questions since his first run againt Thomas.
“I gave this thing all I had for public education. I’m pro-Second Amendment and pro-life, but they convinced a lot of teachers that I was not.”
The Pennyrile and adjacent Purchase are arguably Kentucky’s conservative sections. Taylor said for Democrats to win statehouse races hereabouts, “we’ve got to convince these people that we are conservative and religious by nature.”
He said the Republican “attack ads and the Trump robo-calls” diverted voter attention from economic issues such as teacher pensions and union rights “to these federal issues [abortion and gun control].”
Taylor called himself “a truly fiscal conservative. If you aren’t, you can’t win in western Kentucky.”
Despite his mailers and campaign ads, Taylor said, “many people—many teachers—bought all the lies and false attacks on me. The people showed us that the gun and abortion issues are more important to them than pocketbook issues. Their beliefs are so strong that they are willing to sacrifice their livelihoods for that.”
Taylor agreed that with few exceptions, Republicans who are anti-abortion and pro-gun are also anti-union and anti-public education. He thought the election would turn on economics and education, issues that favor Democrats.
“This election should have been a cake walk, a walk in the park. [Gov. Matt] Bevin has the fourth worst approval rating in the nation. Nine out of 10 people disapprove of what the Republicans did in the last legislative session.
“But it goes back to how the Republicans were able to flip this back to those federal issues. It’s like a silent dog whistle we’re not hearing.”
Racism and sexism were also on the ballot
Taylor is African American. He said Trump’s “pandering to division is a huge part of his appeal to rural white voters. It was more subtle here, but I battled it throughout the campaign. The division is just part of it. I was prepared for it.”
Goddard said she experienced a palpable undercurrent of sexism. “I definitely did not have the support of many males for sure. I could tell that from the beginning. Looking at data from donations and things like that, I got more money from women than from men.
“I was well supported by females.”
An elementary school teacher, Goddard knew that as a rookie candidate, she needed nuts-and-bolts campaigning help. So she enrolled in Emerge Kentucky, which recruits and trains women to run for office as Democrats.
Goddard, who joined teacher rallies at the capital, largely focused her campaign on public education. “I consider education a foundational stepping stone for our economic growth and success,” she said. “I feel that’s really been left out of the narrative.
“Education is currently under attack. These attacks are harming us all.”
She had to run her campaign on a shoestring. “I was definitely pretty far behind monetarily. I did not have nearly enough money.”
But Goddard, who lives with her husband and their two children in rural Graves County, said she “ran a frugal campaign because I’m a working-class person. This is the way I live in my day-to-day life. I don’t like to see people’s money wasted, and I was careful about what I purchased for the campaign.”
Goddard, like Taylor and Barnes, called out the Republicans for their votes to approve “right to work,” abolish the prevailing wage, open the door to charter schools, curb workers’ compensation benefits, cut taxes on the wealthy and “reform” state pensions by trimming some benefits for current and retired teachers and other public employees and forcing most new hires into “hybrid cash balance” 401(k)-type plans.
Declared unconstitutional in a lower court, the fate of the pension bill rests with the state Supreme Court.
But she said the three Gs kept cropping up all along the campaign trail. Toward the end, voter buzz broadened to the Trump-demonized caravan of asylum-seeking Central American refugees fleeing north to escape poverty and violence. “You know how Trump pushes things. It’s the fear factor.”
But from start to finish, Goddard also said that abortion and guns were uppermost in the minds of many voters she spoke with. “It was very frustrating,” she said.
Barnes beaten by Trumpism – and the caravan
Barnes, also an Emerge grad, said teachers stuck with her. “I got very strong support from the teachers I knew. But they couldn’t do it on their own. The remaining public didn’t seem willing to put their money where their mouth was as far as supporting the teachers and the other public employees.”
Barnes thinks Trump’s visit to Murphysboro in southern Illinois hurt her campaign. That section of the Land of Lincoln lies over the Ohio River from westernmost Kentucky.
“I think it fueled a push of some kind from the Republicans that was completely unexpected. There was very, very strong straight ticket Republican voting, and I think it was an emotional reaction to the fear mongering that was happening with Trump and the leaders in the Republican party.”
She, too, cited Trump’s demagoguery over the caravan. “All we heard was that this terrifying horde was rushing the border down in Texas – this caravan that was going to come in and take over.
“They talked about all this gloom and doom right before the election. Since the election, we haven’t heard a word about the caravan.”
The Republicans also targeted Barnes with a flurry of negative ads and direct mail. “I had made the decision to ignore that stuff because I just couldn’t believe that anyone would buy that.”
She said the defeat of so many Democrats in Kentucky represented “fear winning out over progress.”
Barnes said she expected to win. (Many leading Democrats in her part of the state though Bechler was vulnerable.)
“I think I had the right ideas. I ran my campaign the way I would have wanted to see any politician run a campaign – with integrity and honesty, and that’s what I want to see from our leaders from here on out. Whether or not that is a pipe dream, I don’t know.
“But I’m hoping that even with our loss, it will eventually get better. It has to. It just has to, because that’s what America is all about. That’s what our state is about.”
People aren’t listening
Even so, she is frustrated that so many people won’t look past the Democratic label. “I was really surprised that people are not listening to Democrats when they say, ‘I’m pro-gun’ or ‘I’m pro-constitution.’
“As a Democrat, I can say it until I’m blue in the face, and nobody is going to believe me. We’ve got to find a way to change that conversation because the Republicans don’t own the Second Amendment. Republicans don’t own compassion for the lives of children.”
Added Barnes: “There’s nothing about my stance as a Democrat, if someone would take the time and listen to me, that says I am out of line with reasonable ideas. Every time I talk with somebody about abortion as a Democrat, they get very heated and start talking about late-term abortions and the cruelty they see in that.
“Obviously, I feel the same way, too. Being a Democrat doesn’t that mean you want to kill babies. That’s something we have to change, but I don’t know how to change it.”
She said Bechler and the GOP attack ads deliberately distorted her positions on abortion and guns. “At some point, the Republicans have got to stop lying and, whether or not they will, we’ve got to hold them to a higher standard to tell just the straight-on truth.”
The teachers actually did “remember in November” – but it wasn’t enough to overcome Trumpism
Meanwhile, some in the media are blaming the Democrats’ defeat on waning teacher ardor from the protests when the legislature was last in session.
‘”We’ll remember in November’ rang hollow on Election Day,” Tom Loftus wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “The threatening chant by teachers and demonstrators against Republican majorities as they passed pension legislation last spring failed to carry over.”
“Kentucky statehouse races: Teachers get failing grade on Election Day,” the story’s headline proclaimed.
Barnes said it is all too easy—and wrong—to scapegoat teachers. She disagrees with the notion that Democrats lost “because the teachers didn’t get out and vote.
“First of all, I would hesitate to lay the blame at the feet of teachers. They’ve had enough of that, and I’m not willing to join in that fray. I’m just not. Teachers did what they needed to do.
They just weren’t supported by their fellow citizens, and I think that goes a long way to show how alone they are in this area as well. They’re out on an island as much as we are.”
“Second of all, given the way the situation went down, I don’t think that there was anything we could have done differently from what we did. The turnout was great. We were in great campaigns. We had wonderful candidates, and we still didn’t win.”
What about 2019?
But Barnes said Democrats have a big chance to rebound next year. “We can throw all of our weight behind the best candidate for governor, and I think that if we work hard enough—and I’m ready and willing to get involved in that—we can still put somebody that cares about the middle class into office and maybe have a chance to turn this around.”
Attorney General Andy Beshear’s hat is in the ring. (Beshear sued to overturn the pension bill and won in Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort.)
House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins is expected to announce his candidacy Wednesday in Morehead. Former state auditor Adam Edelen is reportedly considering a try for governor, too.
Barnes advises whoever wins next May’s primary to “lead by example and be the candidate we’d want them to be. They can’t fall into that trap of ‘we can’t beat them at their game, so we’re going to have to join them down in the mud.’ That’s just not helping us in the long run.”
Barnes said that going Republican Lite won’t work either.
“The people don’t want a phony Democrat,” President Harry Truman advised 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.”
“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,” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Ben Self.
“But these social issues are killing us in these rural areas,” Barnes said. “We need to hire some genius marketer who can figure this out and throw some money behind that.”
Meanwhile, she said, “We’re going to have to do like the song says and ‘teach our children well’ and hope that that they can make more sense of it when they get old enough to vote.”