Politics & Government

After a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, can Kentucky Democrats recover?


Picture a forest. Picture the trees standing tall and proud, shaped by years of history.

Now picture that forest on fire.

It’s been that kind of week for the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Amid languishing party coffers and an unprecedented lack of power in Frankfort, this week the Kentucky Democratic Party was hit with a sex scandal from the old guard and a theft scandal from the new.

Julian Carroll, a former governor and current state senator, was asked to resign Sunday by fellow Democrats following a Spectrum Pure Politics report that he allegedly groped and propositioned a 30-year-old man a dozen years ago (Carroll says he’s not resigning).

Three days later, Grace Wise, the executive director of Back the Bluegrass, a political action committee aimed at raising money to support millennial candidates in Kentucky, was arrested on charges of theft by deception and forgery.

But sometimes forest fires are necessary for the health of a forest, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

“It’s not uncommon after a change of hands to see the party that drops out of power to have to go through a rebirth from the ashes,” Voss said.

The question for Kentucky Democrats, watching as new Republican voter registrations consistently outpace Democratic registrations, is how to rise from those ashes.

“It’s going to be impossible for Democrats to turn this state back to a blue state or a purple state as long as the national Democratic party is in disfavor to the people of Kentucky,” said Jonathan Miller, former Democratic State Treasurer.

Miller pointed out that the trend isn’t exactly new. Kentucky hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996 and former President Barack Obama didn’t have many friends in the state outside of Lexington and Louisville.

The Democrats had found solace in fending off the Republicans at the state level — until this year. That’s when Republicans finally took the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time in 95 years.

“I think it’s going to be a long road for them to rebuild their party,” said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Now with control of the executive and legislative branch in Frankfort, Republicans have passed sweeping conservative reforms at the state level, matched by the prospect of more to come from the Republican-controlled federal government.

“We’ve got to make sure Rome is done burning before we can rebuild,” said Jared Smith, the treasurer of the New Kentucky Project, an organization that aims to engage new Democratic voters.

So, is Rome done burning yet?

“It’s close, it’s close,” he said.

Watching Rome burn can also help a party find its message. Adam Edelen, former Democratic State Auditor, mentioned renewable energy (he is currently heading a solar panel project), better internet access and more funding for education as issues where Democrats can win over some voters.

“I think ultimately the party has got to be rebuilt around being something other than the anti-Trump, anti-Bevin party,” Edelen said.

Terry McBrayer, a former chairman of the Democratic Party who ran the campaign of former Gov. Paul Patton, said that politicians have focused more on what they’re against than what they’re for, prioritizing elections over people in the process.

“Everybody is against everybody on the other side,” McBrayer said. “We don’t stand for much.”

To focus on a message takes money, however, and the Kentucky Democratic Party has a money problem.

While Republicans have been pulling in donations at a healthy clip, claiming $931,563 on hand at the end of last year, the Democrats have less than one percent of that, reporting $8,866 on hand this June.

“As a rule of thumb, the Republicans have always done a little better in that respect and they do it more methodically,” McBrayer said.

Traditionally, Democrats have relied on their political power to raise money. Edelen said the “smart money” — the money businesses pay to the people in power — had kept them afloat for years.

But now, with only two constitutional officers and the minority party in both chambers of the legislature, that “smart money” has dried up.

Edelen said instead of going after large donors, the party needs to mimic the campaigns of former President Obama and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, who relied on smaller, grassroots donations.

“There’s no single action that can be done at the top to save the Democratic Party,” Edelen said. “The Democratic Party doesn’t need one or two saviors, it needs hundreds, if not thousands.”

Despite the difficult year, there are glimmers of optimism in the party.

The election of President Donald Trump led to a rise in activism in both Lexington and Louisville. Protesters have picketed events held by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington. They’ve marched for science, women’s rights and gay rights.

“The good news is like in many places throughout the country, we’ve never seen so much energy and passion around progressive issues,” Miller said.

The newest attempt to promote young Democratic candidates may have faltered with the arrest of Wise, but it’s hardly the only one in the state and hadn’t done much since it was officially founded in May.

Emerge Kentucky recruits women to politics and has seen some success sending candidates to the statehouse, and the New Kentucky Project, an organization started by Edelen and sports radio host Matt Jones, filled a hotel ballroom when they had their first conference this year.

“I feel very good with the bench the Democratic Party has moving forward,” Smith said.

And while scandals enveloped the Democratic Party this week, Voss said they tend to stick with an individual rather than with a party.

“What’s sticky is the perception of what the parties will deliver and what kind of politicians you can expect from them,” Voss said.

That gives Democrats at least some hope for the future. Plus, they figure the state can’t be under Republican power forever.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Miller said. “Nature also abhors a one-party system.”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics