Fifteen years ago, Northern Kentucky had a Democratic Congressman, a Democratic governor that all three counties supported and Democrats in four of its nine state House seats.
Looking at the political landscape today, that might as well have been 150 years ago.
A Republican, Thomas Massie, serves the region in the U.S. House of Representatives. Northern Kentucky backed Republican Matt Bevin for governor in 2015. All four of its state senators and seven of its nine state House members are Republican. And Republicans occupy every non-judicial office in Boone, Campbell and Kenton county governments.
Democrats want to revive themselves from their coma. To that end, Democratic catalysts Nathan and Mary Lee Chance Smith sponsored a candidate boot camp in Covington on Sept. 23 for about 35 Dems pondering a run for office in Kentucky. The six-hour workshop is part of a campaign called “Project Run.” About a dozen current and former Democratic officials spoke, including Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, who last November became the first Democrat to win that office in 113 years.
“Many races here go completely uncontested and so, oftentimes, the Republicans who are winning these seats are putting very little effort into the race,” Mary Lee Smith says. “They don’t have to spend any money. They don’t have to go door to door. They’re just basically a shoo-in.”
The boot camp covered election basics: ballot requirements, campaign fundraising and organizing, and developing a message. Smith says the event was an outgrowth of the Fort Mitchell Democrats club, which has grown to more than 210 people since its formation in the spring.
“We want to help these folks get on the ballot. That’s number one,” she says. “I feel very hopeful that Democrats can get back in the game. I think now is the perfect time. I think we’re going to see a lot more participation in 2018.”
At least two candidates for the Kentucky House of Representatives emerged at the boot camp. One, Jason Kilmer of Fort Thomas, wants to run for House District 68, represented since 1999 by Republican Joseph Fischer. He wants to assert himself for a middle class “being the scapegoat for tax cuts for the affluent.” He also wants to develop alternatives in dealing with the opioid crisis and defend the working class and public schools.
“Joe Fischer has served honorably for a long time, but I think he has fallen victim to complacency and an ideological party agenda,” says Kilmer, who grew up in Alexandria and works as a mechanical drafter for Johnson & Johnson. “When constituents are calling and writing your office at the rate they were to oppose charter school legislation and you still vote for it, something has to give.”
Josh Blair, a Kenton County native and college professor who lives in Erlanger, attended the boot camp to prepare for a run against incumbent Diane St. Onge for Kentucky’s 63rd House district. He says he wants to help “everyday Kentuckians” by protecting public education and public pensions, solving the opioid epidemic and keeping taxes low.
“I don’t think it’s important for more Democrats to run for office; I think it’s important for more people to run for office,” Blair says. “I think every election, general and primary, should give citizens a choice. In many cases, whether it’s state representative, county commission or judge-executive, there are no general election challengers in Kenton County, so the primary election decides who represents us. With closed primaries in Kentucky, that means a large portion of the electorate can’t vote for its leaders.”
Democrats face two big mathematical hurdles in Northern Kentucky. Going into last November's elections, 48.4 percent of the region's voters were registered Republicans, while only 37.9 percent were Democrats, with Boone County the reddest of the three counties. When it came time to vote Nov. 8, about 65 percent of those majority Republicans went to the polls, compared with 55 percent of Democrats. And there's no telling how many of those Dems crossed over to vote for Republican candidates. Republicans have since expanded their lead in the region.
In 2018, Kentuckians will vote for county officials, all state representatives, half of the state senators, commonwealth's attorneys and a member of Congress. Republicans currently control the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature. Only one of six congressional seats is held by a Democrat, John Yarmuth of Louisville.
That doesn't deter Mary Lee Smith, whose fundraising events have drawn presidential runner-up Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to her home in Fort Mitchell. She would like to coax out a new crop of candidates, teach them the mechanics of campaigns and help them build the relationships necessary to win. Among her hopes is to find a challenger to U.S. Rep. Massie, who is in his third term in Congress.
"Even if our candidates ultimately aren't successful, we at least need to have someone running so that the other viewpoint on issues is being expressed," she says.
What issues? Maintaining federal health care subsidies and expanded Medicaid. Kentucky's legalization of charter schools. The declining solvency of Kentucky's state and local employees' pension plan. And the opioid crisis.
"There are issues out there that I think we can find common ground on, and those are going to be the issues that these candidates will put at the forefront," Smith says.
CONTACT JAMES McNAIR at [email protected], 513-914-2736 or @jmacnews on Twitter