After an Election Night of decidedly mixed results, Kentucky Democrats pondering the future of their party divide their prospects into two categories — state and federal races.
Or put another way, hope and despair.
The party got the wind knocked out of it when Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was crushed by incoming U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But state Democrats caught their breath in time for a sigh of relief at the end of the night, when it was clear that they would maintain control of the state House.
Democratic officials are now engaged in deep soul-searching as they ponder the realities of the state's increasingly rightward tilt, searching for ways to mirror their state successes on the federal level.
"I think we were all taken aback by the size of Sen. McConnell's victory," state Auditor Adam Edelen said. "Our inability to break through really has to force our leadership, me included, to evaluate our standing and our strategy going forward. Everything has to be re-evaluated."
That kind of examination is taking place at all levels of the party. Gov. Steve Beshear was named last week to a Democratic National Committee task force that will evaluate what worked, and more notably after losing control of the U.S. Senate, what went wrong in the midterm elections.
In an interview this week with the Herald-Leader, Beshear said maintaining control of the state House was a "major accomplishment," and some of his recommendations to the DNC's winter meeting in February will focus on how House Democrats were able to win in what was an otherwise bleak year for their party.
Beshear gives credit for state Democrats' win to two things: focusing on the economic priorities of Kentucky voters and the recruitment of better candidates than Republicans.
The governor, who has been hailed by national Democrats for successfully implementing the Affordable Care Act, said the decision to focus on jobs and the economy from the beginning is what saved the party from joining those of Mississippi and Alabama "in a race back to the 19th century."
"We went out and grabbed hold of that issue and took ownership of that issue and we've kept ownership of that issue," Beshear said. "I think people trusted that the Democrats were in line with their priorities on that issue."
Democrats also had the advantage of controlling how House district lines were redrawn in 2013, forcing several Republican incumbents to retire rather than battle each other in primary elections.
'We've missed the boat'
As for Grimes, Beshear said the Democratic candidate was in "an impossible situation." He faulted the inability of national Democrats to present core Democratic values in a message that was palatable to red-state Democrats. Instead, the national party chose "piecemeal" messaging to address minimum wage, the pay equity gap and other pocketbook issues.
"I think we've missed the boat in terms of the way we talk about these issues," Beshear said. "They're all economic issues, and we need to talk about them that way."
Beshear said Democrats have a good story to tell voters about health care reform, education reform and economic recovery, but President Barack Obama and others bungled the messaging and thus didn't get credit for an improved economy and progressive movement on other issues.
The governor disagreed with comments by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, after the election, questioning Obama's decision to focus on health care when he came into the White House instead of purely focusing on the economy in the midst of a global recession.
"Thank goodness the president did address health care," Beshear said. "But I think the president could have done both."
As for whether Grimes made a mistake by not embracing the early success of Kynect — the health insurance exchange that Beshear created to implement the federal health law — Beshear didn't play armchair quarterback.
"It wouldn't have changed the outcome, and it's very difficult to figure out whether it would've changed some votes or not either way," he said.
"You can certainly understand her reticence in embracing the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky, which everybody calls Obamacare," the governor said. "If there was a way to cut through the clutter and remind those 500,000 to 600,000 people (who have used Kynect to get insurance) that Sen. McConnell wants to take that away from you, then that might have been an effective message."
To Edelen, the key to the party's future is knowing what parts of its history to leave in the past and finding candidates with proven records who can promote and defend their beliefs while "speaking with some passion and specificity about what they're about."
In Grimes' race against McConnell, Edelen said, "there really weren't any new ideas."
"It was really more being forced into defending the status quo, and you get crushed doing that," Edelen said. "Moving forward, the notion that we can still be the same old Democratic Party is a notion I think is wrong-headed."
The message problem, according to many Democrats contacted for this story, is that too often, Democrats are afraid to tell their success story for fear of being branded as liberals cut from the mold of national Democrats.
The state party must do a better job of "communicating its message and communicating its successes," said Jennifer Moore, former chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
"We've certainly got to do a better job of delivering certain messages," said David O'Neill, the Fayette County property valuation administrator.
O'Neill cited coal as an issue where Democrats in federal races are constantly in danger of falling into the Republican narrative that supporting alternatives to coal means being anti-coal.
"We have to learn how to tell that story and not make it sound like we're anti-coal," O'Neill said. "We've let the Republicans tell the narrative, and that's what they tell."
'Blink of an eye'
But there are other problems, aside from message, plaguing the party as it goes through an identity crisis similar to the one the national party is experiencing.
Who will take on U.S. Sen. Rand Paul when he runs for re-election in 2016? Given the party's history of holding primary elections that look like a cattle call, how is it possible that Attorney General Jack Conway faces only fringe opposition in his run for governor six months before the May primary? How long can Democrats hold on to the state House?
Both Beshear and McConnell have told their parties in recent days that candidate recruitment is the key to winning future races, and Beshear said "part of the reason that we were successful in these House races is that we out-recruited the other side."
Still, Beshear conceded, "we've got to develop a younger group of Democrats coming along in these House and Senate positions, as well as local races."
"As progressive as we've been, all that could change in the blink of an eye," Beshear warned.
The short list of promising young Democratic candidates includes Edelen; Grimes; Beshear's son, Andy, who is running for attorney general next year; Coleman Eldridge, a top Beshear aide; former Louisville mayoral candidate David Tandy; and a handful of others.
But in the state legislature, only three Democrats — Sen. Morgan McGarvey and state Reps. Will Coursey and James Kay — are younger than 40. There are twice that many Republicans younger than 40 in the state Senate alone.
"I think the Democrats have a lot of talented, really promising people," McGarvey said.
Moore's group, Emerge Kentucky, trains female Democratic candidates to run for office. In 2014, the group had a record 27 candidates seeking public office, winning 12 of them.
Of those 12, three are younger than 40.
"I think there's a pretty good bench," said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth. "It's just that the back-up in state offices right now is making it difficult."
With Conway running for governor, Andy Beshear running for attorney general, Edelen running for re-election and Grimes' future uncertain, there is little opportunity for other Democrats to seek statewide office.
At the federal level, the lopsided margin by which Grimes lost to McConnell is likely to have a chilling effect on efforts to recruit Democrats to run in federal races.
"Obviously, the results on Nov. 4 have caused people to have greater concern about getting into federal races in Kentucky," Beshear said. "But if we can, on a national level, go back and grab hold of our core again as Democrats and message that in the appropriate way, we can start to make inroads again on the federal level even here in Kentucky. It will take some time, but it's possible."
Others are less optimistic.
"I think that outside of the immediate urban areas of Louisville and Lexington, the state is trending very red in federal races, and I don't see that reversing anytime in the near future," O'Neill said. "It seems to be getting worse."