Small Steps Led to Big Changes for Kentucky Dems
The question posed by George Humphreys in his look back at the Democratic political history of Western Kentucky Where Have All the Democrats Gone? is one that has more than one answer. No one factor edged the Democratic Party out of electoral seats in the Purchase. It was a series of steps that culminated in a 2022 election cycle with no Purchase Democrats running for the Kentucky House or Senate, Berry Craig pointed out that uncomfortable fact in a recent Courier Journal article.
The full list of what or who's at fault for the demise of Democratic Purchase power is best left to some future political science student looking to impress their prof with a delve into the dark path that Democratic politics has followed.
For this article, we look at modern Democratic leadership.
The number of strong Democratic leaders in Kentucky is a short list which can probably stop at Governor Beshear's office. Every statewide elected officer, other than his running mate, is held by a Republican. House and Senate Democrats are reduced to press releases expressing concern and voting in opposition.
Western Kentucky politicians seemed to run out ideas to help their voters about the time Wendell Ford voted for NAFTA and GATT. Globalization hurt blue collar workers. It made goods cheaper for consumers. But for those who depended on those jobs, those two bills, while not the whole reason manufacturing in the west died, were handy acronyms to cite.
At its high point, factory jobs in the early, numbered 38,000 jobs. By 2000, most of those jobs had ceased to exist in the early 1970s. That doesn't include union jobs at Goodyear Tire in Union City Tennessee which employed a number of Kentucky workers. It's closing put approximately 1500 out of a job. The paper mill in Wickliffe sold and reopened followed the familiar pattern. Jobs came back with the new owners but fewer workers with lower pay. Union jobs disappeared when the parent company sold out. Both facilities are coming back but not at union scale and with nowhere near the workforce.
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant closing in 2013 left 1000 workers without jobs. The continued clean up by the Department of Energy which will go on for the foreseeable future is putting millions back into the local economy.
Factory closings hurt small towns more than it hurt urban area. There is real economic dislocation when the ONE factory in town closes. When one factory out of many closes, workers in urban areas have a chance to shift to another job. In rural areas so focused on keeping family close, migrating away for a job is a wrench.
Ford most likely agreed with former Arkansas Governor now President Bill Clinton, that whatever pain was caused by outsourcing production would be quickly soothed by the joy of more and cheaper products for consumer. It didn't work out quite that way but no one has ever seriously proposed unwinding the deals. Edges are nibbled when political expediency calls for it. But corporate likes low labor costs and consumers like their products cheaper - no matter what the community and societal cost.
Whatever the reasons those Kentucky Democratic congressmen had for going along with policies that would hurt more than help their constituents, going along with a political party increasingly dominated by urban and coastal interests had to be a factor. Party loyalty meant something back in the "good old days". To go along and get anything, compromises had to be made. That may have made sense to those inside who knew how it works, but it was a sweet campaign issue to use against them.
Leadership in the planning center of the Commonwealth found it nearly impossible to address the issue of rural job loss. The belief by many farther out in the state that economic development happened within drive time of Frankfort. Coming out to the Purchase for one meeting with a developer or company rep interested in a new site was a two day affair for any living outside of the region. Political trips to glad hand the courthouse became increasingly rare as more courthouses in the west trended Republican.
A trip once a year to the Fancy Farm Picnic and its surrounding activities met the requirement of visiting. Ironically, the St. Jerome's Picnic political event has more upstaters than Purchase participants.
Governor Beshear has, since the December 10th tornado that hit western Kentucky, made multiple trips to the region. That has been seen and appreciated by residents. Whether it converts to votes in less than two years remains to be seen.
The demise of Democratic power has roots in governor's races that became all about the candidate and his power base. Whatever Democratic power base existed after the primary became subservient to the governor and his entourage. Governors like John Y. Brown and Wallace Wilkinson had their own go to people. Wilkinson is fondly remembered for his government to the people program which brought him and state officials out of Frankfort.
As often as not the governor's people were not in the existing Democratic structure. Few were county chairs or vice chairs or committee members. Appointees brought very little regional loyalty but a whole lot of personal gratitude to the guy who hired them. When he left office, they left with him. That left a gap in understanding and cross pollination which has never been completely filled.
Getting elected doesn't necessarily make one a leader. It also doesn't automatically confer the mantle of spokesperson on the elected. The politicians who are passionate, articulate and ready to make the ask are few and far between. Not since Marshall County Judge Mike Miller has a Democratic politician come out of the region ready to take on Frankfort's bureaucratic morass for constituents. Miller was always pitching for his county. His winning average was better than counties more populated than his.
Miller once met the first Governor Beshear at the Paducah Airport as Beshear flew in set to announce a program having little or nothing to do with Marshall County.
"Mike, what are you doing here?" an obviously surprised Beshear asked.
A grinning Miller replied "I'm here for the money, Governor. I'm here for the money."
Nothing can be said about Kentucky politics (or nationally) without a recognition that Senator Mitch McConnell had a plan and executed on it. The Republican Party of Kentucky went from being a nonentity to a power in every county of the Purchase, owning the Kentucky House and Senate with such a majority, challenging it seems to be a fruitless and pointless act.
Those who had the courage to challenge Republican rule found themselves facing a McConnell machine willing to reach down into city and county elections to get their people in place and keep others out. McConnell has only recently run into the buzz saw that is MAGA and only time will tell if his reluctance to bend the knee to Mara Lago will spell the end of his reign in the Bluegrass State. With his own election safely in the rear view mirror and the take over of the Senate a strong possibility, he only has to worry that his coveted return to the title of Majority Leader may be endangered by activist senators to the right of him.
Purchase Democrats haven't given up. As one historian is fond of pointing out, American history is a pendulum. The wild swing to the right will be followed by a balancing back to the left. But without leadership and voices that strongly support candidates down ticket, if there is a pendulum uptick, it will be short lived.