The election of President Donald Trump has undeniably energized the political left, but with the increased activism comes a looming question for Kentucky Democrats: How can they turn this involvement into political action in a state that’s been trending red?
About 600 people gathered Saturday at the Embassy Suites in Lexington to hear a group of panelists and speakers try to answer that question during the New Kentucky Project’s first conference.
The project, launched by former Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen and Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones, is billed as a grassroots movement to bring progressive ideas to Kentucky politics.
“Matt Bevin won because he had ideas, bad ones, but ideas,” Jones said. “Whereas we were, ‘well he’s bad.’ You can’t win like that. You can’t win nationally like that. And while I understand the anger across the country and agree with most of it, I still think you don’t win just by saying the other guy is bad.”
Jones and Edelen said their primary mission is to reach out to people throughout the state and engage them on the issues. That includes reaching out to people who voted for Trump.
“In this state, if we want to win elections and have an impact, we have to get conservatives on our side,” Jones said.
Edelen stressed health care, public education and supporting the middle class as the most important issues the organization can address and issues where he thinks the party can find common ground with a wide variety of people.
Issue-based campaigns aren’t a new concept for politicians, and neither are the issues Edelen mentioned. In the beginning of most political races, the candidates say they want to run a campaign focused on ideas.
But Jones, who previously considered running for Congress but now says he has no plans to run for office, said he was brought into the New Kentucky Project as someone who can reach out and engage people on those issues in a way politicians can’t.
Jones said one of the most watched videos he made on his television show “Hey Kentucky” was an explanation of the so-called “right to work” law that passed the General Assembly in January. He said he thinks people often don’t understand the issues and hopes, with the launch of a new political blog funded by the New Kentucky Project, that more of those issues will be explained.
In the spring, after March Madness has ended, Jones said the organization will start touring the state. Jones said he and Edelen will be available to speak at events anywhere in Kentucky.
“I don’t think this is representative-based, I think this is people-based,” Jones said. “I think you see that with the crowd, there are people here that you don’t usually see at these events.”
Still, several elected politicians attended and participated in panels. State Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, talked about connecting to “forgotten people,” and state Reps. Dean Schamore, John Sims, Angie Hatton, McKenzie Cantrell and Russ Meyer were heralded as “Kentucky’s new leaders.”
Kentucky House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, hovered in the back of the room for most of the event.
Skeptics argue the liberal backlash to actions taken by Trump in his first days in office will fizzle well before the next election in 2018, but Jones said he thinks the political engagement will continue.
“I think people continue to care about this stuff,” Jones said. “He (Trump) took sort of this boring politics and really brought it to the masses. He did it in a way I find negative, but I do find that people just care about all of this stuff.”
Edelen and Jones said they want the project to include people from varying political and ethnic backgrounds, but during one panel, a member of the audience pointed out that the audience was largely white. Another speaker, when asking how many people were born in the ’50s and ’60s, noted that about a third of the audience fell in that age group.
“A lot of that is on us,” said Jones, regarding the lack of racial diversity at the event. “We’ve been weak in that area and we need help. But in my opinion, we need to give folks a reason to want to come here.”
Jones and Edelen acknowledged the challenges the group faces. They said the event will probably cost the group $20,000 because more people showed up than expected (they were only anticipating about 150). They openly acknowledged that their planned blog would not make money. And they said winning the minds of people won’t be easy.
“From an idea perspective, there’s more of them out there than us,” Jones said.
The organization claims to have a representative in 115 of Kentucky’s 120 counties and about 1,000 members.
Jones said the group plans to continue hosting issue-based conferences and will focus on candidate development. Edelen said the project won’t financially support candidates because their tax status prohibits them from electioneering.
“Matt Bevin didn’t wait his turn and it’s time that Democrats not wait their turn,” Jones said. “The reality is you pick the candidate that people want.”