Make the mountains blue again?

Kentucky Democrats should keep investing in grassroots campaign, working class

December 12, 2023 5:00 am

Beshear reached into history, and employed a strategy that would make Franklin Roosevelt, above, sport his famous grin. He reassembled a central pillar of the New Deal coalition, one forgotten by many other Democratic politicians: the working class. (Getty Images)

Eastern Kentucky is an ancestrally Democratic region that usually doesn’t vote Democratic, except last month. Gov. Andy Beshear was reelected to a second term, and he did so by winning across Eastern Kentucky. As a proud Eastern Kentuckian, I want to offer my take on the election — not only on how Beshear won in the region, but how other Democrats can as well.

After his narrow win over Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019, the question persisted of whether Beshear could once again win a “deep red” state, twice won by Donald Trump, against Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who tied himself to Trump just as much as he tried to tie Beshear to President Joe Biden, unpopular in Kentucky and across the country.

Beshear won by five points, with a clear majority of 52% to Cameron’s 47%. He outperformed his 2019 margins in Louisville and Lexington, but he also made significant inroads in Eastern Kentucky. The governor increased his vote share in counties he previously won, such as Knott, Floyd and Rowan. Even in some eastern counties won by Cameron, such as Bell, Pike and Harlan, Beshear narrowed the gap compared to 2019. And he flipped Letcher, Perry, and Powell counties — he won Powell by one vote, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that your vote does not matter.

Beshear reached into history, and employed a strategy that would make Franklin Roosevelt sport his famous grin. He reassembled a central pillar of the New Deal coalition, one forgotten by many other Democratic politicians: the working class.

Gov. Andy Beshear brought sandwiches to striking autoworkers in Louisville, Oct. 19, 2023. (AFL-CIO photo)

Throughout his administration and campaign, Beshear showed himself to be a committed friend of labor. He visited picketing UAW workers in Louisville, but he didn’t stop there in an arguably “safe” Democratic constituency.

He also reached out to the rural working class, once a stalwart Democratic voting bloc.

During his first campaign in 2019, he visited my hometown of Harlan County where laid-off coal miners were blocking a train full of coal which they had mined but for which they hadn’t been paid. Beshear, then state attorney general and arguably an underdog in that race against the incumbent Bevin, didn’t ask those miners what their registration was or who they planned to vote for that November. Beshear recognized that these were human beings with families who worried about their future, and he committed to help them secure it. He joined with the atorney general of Virginia in petitioning the federal government to immediately pay all back wages owed to those miners. 

After his election as governor, Beshear advocated for the workers of Eastern Kentucky in other ways. He committed to preserving the well-deserved pensions and health care access of coal miners — no wonder then that  the United Mine Workers endorsed his reelection.

Beshear’s “Better Kentucky Plan” outlined hundreds of millions in physical infrastructure and social services. These projects would benefit folks across the commonwealth, but particularly working-class communities across Eastern Kentucky. 

I will never forget the horror of last year’s flooding. Seeing whole communities submerged, trying to reach my friends in those counties, the heart-wrenching stories of loss and destruction which followed. Among the thousands who showed up to help, along with Tyler Childers and Chris Stapleton, was Andy Beshear. He didn’t campaign, didn’t ask folks if they were Democrats or Republicans. He showed up for everyone. He committed hundreds of thousands to help build high-ground homes for those displaced and took further executive action to help folks rebuild their communities, and their lives.

Beshear won reelection for several reasons. He is a capable executive who has brought jobs and resources to communities across Kentucky. He’s a friendly and down to earth presence, and he was relentlessly positive in his campaigning. As far as East Kentucky goes, along with what I’ve recounted so far, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give proper credit to my friend Nicholas Hazelett who traversed Johnson and Floyd Counties in the leadup to the election to canvas for Beshear, and who I am convinced help make the mountains blue this cycle. The Kentucky Democratic Party should continue to invest in grassroots local campaigning in the mountains.

People from Eastern Kentucky are rarely asked what we think, particularly when it comes to politics, but here’s one thing I think we can take away from Andy Beshear’s success. Democrats can win in Eastern Kentucky by showing that they care about Eastern Kentuckians. Showing that they care about the needs and conditions of workers across our commonwealth. By working to actually bring clean drinking water, good paying jobs and new infrastructure to the region and its people, who have too often been underserved and ignored. By showing that they stand resolutely with the working class.

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T.J. Hensley
T.J. Hensley

T.J. Hensley comes from Harlan County. He is a graduate of Georgetown College and a first year law student at the University of Louisville. His opinions are his own. He hosts the Appalachian Firesides podcast on Apple and Spotify, where he discusses political, historical and economic issues related to Appalachia.