If Democrats hope to retake the Senate in 2016, they'll need to battle a trend that has plagued their party for a decade: a steady slide in their support among working-class white voters. Once the base of the party, such voters have deserted Democrats in droves. According to national exit polls, Democrats won just 34 percent of noncollege-educated whites in the 2014 midterms.
But the party won't have to wait until 2016 to gauge its standing among working-class white voters: This November's gubernatorial election in Kentucky will provide a prime testing ground. In 2014, white voters without a college degree made up 54 percent of the state's midterm electorate, well higher than the 36 percent they accounted for nationally. The state also has a long history of supporting Democratic governors, a successful Obamacare exchange, and a promising candidate in Attorney General Jack Conway.
In short, Democrats have a lot going their way in Kentucky, and if they can't win over working-class white voters there, it portends trouble for their chances of winning them back in the years to come.
Democrats have controlled the Kentucky governor's office for all but eight of the past 50 years, and currently control five of six statewide offices—as well as having majority control in the state House (their numbers in mayoral offices, state Senate and House seats have taken a recent tumble, however). They also boast popular outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, whose job approval stood in the low-to-mid 50 percent range before the November elections.
And while President Obama remains deeply unpopular in the state, the president's best-known program, Obamacare, has a better record. The success of Kentucky's health exchange, Kynect, has broadened coverage to a state that once boasted one of the highest uninsured rates in the country. The state exceeded enrollment projections, with more than 521,000 sign-ups in the first year, mostly for Medicaid—a huge number, given the state's population of just under 4.4 million. Sign-ups cut the state's number of uninsured by more than 40 percent. And exit polls from the midterms show the program has the support of a majority of Kentucky voters.
None of that, however, helped Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who won just 35 percent of white, noncollege-educated voters en route to losing her 2014 Senate race against Mitch McConnell.
Democrats are hoping that the difference this time around is Conway.
The challenge for Conway, as it was for Grimes, will be to distance himself from an unpopular president and keep the focus squarely on state issues, a feat that's typically easier for the party in nonfederal, off-year elections. When filing his candidacy papers earlier this month, Conway took an early stab at both endeavors by telling reporters, "You can ask me, 'Did you vote for Obama?' The answer is, yes and then I sued him," referring to the lawsuit he joined as attorney general against EPA coal regulations. That's a far cry from Grimes, who was derided for refusing to say whether she voted for Obama in the presidential election.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings views Conway a serious candidate, and anticipates Democrats will run a management-style campaign based on Beshear's record, while doing what they can to avoid ideological issues that have driven Kentucky voters away from the Democratic Party in recent years.
Conway is best known outside Kentucky for his 2010 Senate loss to Rand Paul, and for his infamous "Aqua Buddha" ad that tanked his odds in what was already a tough year for Democrats by suggesting that Paul was somehow anti-Christian. "It was a terrible mistake and totally backfired," Jennings said. "That is still remembered in Kentucky political history as one of the biggest campaign blunders of all time."
But Jennings pointed to Conway's opening statement as evidence he can adapt and learn from his own mistakes, as well as those made by Grimes in last year's Senate race. "I do believe he's a better politician with a better story than Alison Grimes, and he actually has a resume," said Jennings, who ran McConnell's super PAC last year. "He's a tougher candidate and a better candidate than he was in 2010."
Conway has accumulated endorsements from former Gov. Wendell Ford, Rep. John Yarmuth, and the Kentucky AFL-CIO, and he is already working closely with the Democratic Governors Association. DGA political director Corey Platt said, "We're really excited about him. I talk to his folks every single day."
Republicans, meanwhile, are determined to build from their 2014 triumph.
They will choose among at least three candidates in the May primary, including state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, businessman Hal Heiner, and former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will Scott. (It's also possible that Matt Bevin, McConnell's 2014 primary challenger, could be a game-changer if he were to enter the GOP primary. He has yet to formally decline a bid. Jennings said, "Word on the street is he's anxious to run but hasn't found a running mate," but with the Jan. 27 filing deadline looming, it's increasingly likely the field is set. )
Whoever wins is nearly certain to keep running against Obama and Obamacare, even though Kynect remains popular. "Obamacare is here to stay. It's just pandering for these candidates to be running against it," said Kentucky political analyst Al Cross. "But that's how you run against Obama, and Mitch McConnell proved it's a good strategy."
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