Opposition to the policies and actions of President Donald Trump, Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican lawmakers has spurred dozens of non-traditional candidates to make their first runs for public office in Kentucky this year.
To help them get elected, a different kind of leader is trying to retool the state Democratic Party’s infrastructure.
Ben Self, 40, was elected party chair in November. He isn’t a politician or a lawyer, as many past party chairs have been, but an entrepreneur with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and expertise in a key aspect of modern campaigning.
The Lexington native pioneered the use of the Internet for political fundraising and social networking, first for presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004 and more successfully for President Barack Obama in 2008.
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“In some ways I was a very non-traditional choice for party chair,” Self said. “But I think part of that is a recognition that we need to do things differently in this state. I’m interested in modernizing the way we run campaigns to be more data-driven.”
Self was a founder of the company Blue State Digital, and after Obama’s election he and his business partners worked as political consultants around the world. Then Self sold his stake and, with three new business partners, opened Lexington’s West Sixth Brewery in 2012. Although busy with his fast-growing business, Self felt compelled to get back into politics.
“I really believe we are at a precipice in Kentucky,” he said, citing GOP moves to weaken public education, workers’ wages and rights, access to health care and public employee pensions.
The party also elected a new vice chair this month. Cassie Chambers, who grew up in Berea, earned degrees from Yale University and the London School of Economics. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 2015 and works for Kentucky Equal Justice Center in Louisville.
Democrats have an uphill battle to regain power in Kentucky. Republicans took control of the Senate in 1999 and the House in 2016 and now have super majorities. Bevin is the second GOP governor since 2003. Seven of Kentucky’s eight members of Congress are Republicans. Trump won the state with 62.5 percent of the vote.
Self’s first goal — and success — was recruiting more candidates this year than Democrats have in recent campaigns. In the May primary, 155 Democrats are running for 100 House seats and 19 Senate seats. That includes more than 50 women and 30 teachers.
The party has been improving its communication efforts and campaign support systems, Self said, and it has trained more than 250 candidates and volunteers in recent months.
“Our candidates define in many cases what they're running on,” Self said. “Our job is to help teach them how to communicate their message effectively and how to do all the other mechanics of a campaign.”
With help from conservative media, Republicans have done a better job of public messaging than Democrats have in recent years. But Self said Republican-controlled government has given Democrats a great opportunity to change the narrative and point out policy differences that directly affect voters’ lives.
“We need to be talking about the core things we care about as Democrats, which are health care, education, workers’ rights, and not get distracted to talk about the things the Republican Party would rather us talk about,” Self said.
For example, degrading public employee pensions doesn’t just hurt public employees; it hurts taxpayers because it makes it harder for Kentucky to recruit and retain good teachers, firefights and other essential public servants, Self said.
While Republicans have a lot of support from big business, Self wants to make the case that Democratic values are often better for small business owners like himself.
“If you want to make our state more entrepreneur-friendly, provide health insurance for everyone,” he said. “Then people can start companies and not worry about what happens if they get sick.”
As it works to attract a deeper bench of candidates, volunteers and donors, Self said the party is reaching out to new grassroots groups such as Indivisible, Together We Will and Bluegrass Activist Alliance.
“The only way we can change things in our state is if everyone gets up and does what they can,” Self said. “It certainly means vote. Find a candidate you're passionate about and offer them help, because they all need help.”
Self said rebuilding the party will take years, but he thinks most average Kentuckians can be persuaded that Democratic values are better for them.
“Particularly when you look at rural Kentucky, we need government more than ever,” he said. “We need more access to health care. We need more investment in infrastructure, not less investment. We need more investment in schools, not less. We can't cut our way to prosperity.”