Commentary

The coming Democratic forfeit?

As the deadline arrives to run for Kentucky legislature, voters face slim pickings

January 5, 2024 5:40 am

A voter approaches the Morton Middle School polling site in Lexington, Nov. 7, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Matthew Mueller)

In politics, perception often becomes reality.

Nowhere is that saying more appropriate than with legislative elections. Candidates viewed as likely to win attract volunteers, endorsements, and campaign contributions – and maybe extra news coverage – all of which increases the chance of victory.

Once candidates start generating buzz, voters take them seriously. They’ll draw bigger crowds at campaign events, making it easier to spread a winning message. Voters look more closely at the candidate’s literature when it shows up in the mail, figuring they’ll need to make a choice at some point.

Self-fulfilling prophecies work the other way as well. Seemingly doomed campaigns wind up underfunded, understaffed, and ignored by the bigshots who might’ve been able to turn the tide – ensuring that candidates remain dead in the water.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Getty Images)

Note, though, that in either situation – the candidate who seems unassailable or the candidacy that seems hopeless – voters get final say. Sometimes they’ll deliver a surprise.

Dark-horse candidates periodically win office despite starting with shoestring budgets. They campaign with little more than a truck and a box of donuts, but it’s the right place and right time for what they’re selling. Perhaps the most-famous recent example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who took down an entrenched congressional Democrat to become a national star.

For every victorious longshot, a seemingly unbeatable candidate loses. Tea Party upstarts, including Rand Paul in Kentucky, turned back a slew of establishment candidates in 2010, and by 2014 had torn down key Republican legislators, including a House leader.

Rand Paul (Getty Images)

That’s the beauty of democracy: Reality can shatter perceptions.

But voters need a choice. Perception necessarily becomes reality when only one name appears on the ballot.

Judging from the list of candidates who so far have filed to run for General Assembly, citizens across Kentucky may find themselves with no choice this year.

As I write these words, only 28 of the 100 House seats and only 3 of the 19 Senate seats currently have at least one Democrat and one Republican listed. That could improve, but we’re running out of time: Jan. 5, today,  is the filing deadline.

Pickings are especially slim on the Democratic side. They haven’t yet posted candidates for a majority of seats.

Question is: What to make of this dearth of Democratic contenders?

It might seem a tragic mistake. Democrats are fresh off a successful effort to retain the governor’s mansion, despite Republicans holding a supermajority in both legislative chambers. As a result, communities across Kentucky currently have GOP legislators, yet they’re willing to elect a Democrat under the right circumstances.

The temptation would be to fight battles on all those fronts at once, hoping for lucky territorial gains. If Democrats neglect to fight everywhere, doesn’t that mean they’re forfeiting the game?

No. If Kentucky Democrats are serious about party building, taking baby steps in 2024 is wise.

Having a presidential race at the top of the ballot means Republican voters who sat out the governor’s race will show up this year, anchoring GOP incumbents. An off-year election like 2026 should be more promising.

More important, party building requires patience.

Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection just two months ago. Even if his slam dunk forces Democrats to reconsider where they can claw back assembly seats, such optimism hasn’t had time to catalyze a regrowth.

Good candidates rarely spring up on their own like weeds in a backyard. Strong candidacies need to be cultivated, like a treasured plant – a process in which political parties, and sometimes interest groups, play an essential role.

That’s especially true for the minority party in a politically lopsided state. Democrats no longer have a farm team that can feed candidates organically into the political system. Waiting for candidates to sprout will result in a thin crop and – because it’s often seeded by activists at odds with local values – one destined to wither.

The KDP needs to be looking for people outside of politics, business leaders or teachers respected in their communities who happen to be Democrats but wouldn’t consider running for office unless prompted.

Active recruitment is essential if Democrats want to field a diverse slate. Women are less likely to run without encouragement – partly because they view politics as a man’s game, partly because they tend to underestimate their own electability.

Ideally, Democrats don’t simply approach potential candidates with encouragement, but instead offer a credible support package. Running for office is daunting, and campaigns with real potential flounder if they lack the right resources at the right time.

No one can do more to promote Democratic revival than the popular governor who just won reelection, Andy Beshear. I don’t have the space to discuss all the ways a governor can make a difference, but money is key.

Beshear showed that he can raise buckets of cash to protect his own position. Now that he’s visible on the national stage, having won in a Trump-leaning state, Beshear needs to show he can succeed at fundraising on behalf of his party.

Until Democrats can do the hard work of party building, they’re wise to focus on a handful of especially promising districts.

Looking at where Democratic contenders have appeared, it’s possible the KDP is doing exactly that. Kentucky’s House includes nine districts where both parties should have at least a 1/3 raw chance of winning (judging from an updated analysis of the sort I conducted for Kentucky’s redistricting case). A Democrat has filed for all but one of those contests so far.

Democrats also have filed to run in districts where, although the odds are worse, a Democratic victory still would be within the realm of possibilities due to how abortion politics has upset old voting patterns.

We’ll see how many of the Democratic challengers end up being viable, whether they receive the sort of support from Beshear and the KDP they’d need to win. But simply based on numbers, Kentucky’s Democrats haven’t forfeited. They’re taking it slow, as they should.

UPDATE: As expected, a number of Democratic filings came in on the last day, making the numbers look even better for Kentucky Democrats than where they stood at the time this column was submitted. At least one Democratic candidate has filed to run for every House district with at least a 1/3 raw probability of Democratic victory, and Democrats also filed in 29 districts where the partisan tilt was even worse.

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D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.

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