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Bill Straub: Edelen, Jones try to clean up Democrats’ mess with launch of New Kentucky Project

WASHINGTON – The late Raymond Overstreet, former Republican state representative from Liberty, a beloved figure in Frankfort, used to tell the story of Little Timmy who, while chasing a ball, fell into the privy.

Timmy’s mother ran out to determine the cause of the commotion and could only spot a pair of eyes looking up at her from the muck.

“Lord,’’ the mother exclaimed, looking up to the sky, “it would be easier to make another one than to clean up this mess.’’

Such, it appears, is the dilemma facing the Kentucky Democratic Party, which not all that long ago maintained a virtual lock on the commonwealth from Pikeville to Paducah, producing legendary political figures like Vice President Alben Barkley and two-time governor, U.S. Senator and major league baseball commissioner A.B. “Happy’’ Chandler.

It may be, as Timmy’s mother would say, easier to make a new party from scratch than to clean up this mess.

Democrats have produced few candidates in recent years that provide anything approaching a statewide constituency. Attorney General Jack Conway proved to be a reluctant campaigner last year, losing an eminently winnable race for governor to Republican Matt Bevin, who is in the process of making a farce out of the office – perhaps the only positive thing that has happened to Bluegrass Democrats in recent memory.

In 2014 it was Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ turn to underperform, losing to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, by a whopping 15 points after refusing to say if she had voted for President Obama, among a mass of other gaffes.

The party now claims only two constitutional officers, a minority in the state Senate and a bare majority in the state House, which it is in jeopardy of losing in the November elections. Both U.S. senators are Republicans as are five of the state’s six members of Congress.

Kentucky Democrats are weighted by an extraordinarily weak bench, seemingly unable to uncover candidates people want to support. At St. Jerome Fancy Farm Picnic this year, the traditional kick-off to the state’s political campaign, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, challenging Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, performed admirably but he was basically a solo act — few statewide Democrats of any consequence whatsoever appeared to provide moral support among the hoots and catcalls.

Attorney General Andy Beshear was a no-show, as was Grimes, who, she claimed, opted to spend time with her family. But her family apparently took a backseat the following weekend when she showed up in, of all places, Clear Lake, IA, (the place where Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens met their fate, for you trivia buffs out there) to serve as a surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding. Former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan had to be imported in to speak in Clinton’s behalf at Fancy Farm.

The party is on life support, a situation that would have been hard to imagine when Republicans had a tough time scrounging up a gubernatorial candidate to face Democrat Wallace Wilkinson in 1987. The GOP that year wound up with state Rep. John Harper, of Shepherdsville, as nice a guy as you would ever want to meet but way over his head. Wilkinson took 65 percent of the vote – a record — winning 115 of the 120 counties.

Oh, what a difference 29 years make.

The Kentucky Democratic Party first began exhibiting signs that it was about to collapse of its own weight in the early 1990s with the death of Rep. William Natcher, of Bowling Green, who over the years came to epitomize what it meant to be a Bluegrass State lawmaker in the old tradition.

Natcher spent little money on his election campaigns, accepted no contributions and made it a habit whenever he was in the 2nd Congressional District to hit the road, traveling from one small burg to another, meeting constituents without ever letting the press know of his whereabouts. He is best known for his streak of 18,401 uninterrupted roll-call votes while serving in the House from 1953 to 1994.

When he died in office on March 30, 1994, it was presumed that he would be succeeded by a fellow Democrat – the party had, after all, literally controlled the district from 1865 onward. And it came up with what seemed to be an exemplary candidate – former state Sen. Joe Prather, of Vine Grove, who left the upper chamber after an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1987.

Prather was a somebody and the Republicans offered, frankly, a nobody – Ron Lewis an ordained Southern Baptist minister who, at the time, was running a religious book store, the Alpha and Omega, in Elizabethtown.

The outcome was not considered in doubt but there were cross-currents beneath the surface. Reports at the time asserted that 2nd District voters were less than enthusiastic about the man in the White House – President Bill Clinton – and they wanted to make their dissatisfaction know.

But it was something more than that. Second District voters, always on the conservative side, were becoming increasingly alarmed over the leftward shift of the national party and expressed reluctance to add to the Democratic forces in Washington. Much of the discontent centered on social issues – abortion being among them – and a man of the cloth like Lewis provided the sort of moral backbone that provided comfort to Western Kentucky voters.

Lewis won by 10 points. To paraphrase Happy Chandler, who was fired as baseball commissioner and replaced by Ford Frick: There was a vacancy when Bill Natcher died and the voters of the 2nd District decided to continue with it.

As if to place an exclamation point on that decision, Lewis defeated another high-profile Democrat, former state Sen. Joe Wright, of Harned, the next time around. The seat has remained in Republican hands for lo these past 22 years and Democrats have afforded no indication the monopoly won’t continue.

There may be hint of a revival. Former state Auditor Adam Edelen – whose re-election loss remains a curiosity nine months after the fact – and Matt Jones, a popular radio personality, are launching what is being called the New Kentucky Project, offering a progressive political agenda that seeks to offer fresh ideas and develop new leaders

In a sense, when they buried Bill Natcher, the traditional Kentucky Democratic Party went with him. Some stalwarts, certainly former Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Owensboro, probably the commonwealth’s most popular politician during the latter half of the 20th Century, kept the light burning for a while. But a major shift was in the offing.

Later in 1994, a Democrat-turned Republican, Ed Whitfield, captured the 1st Congressional District in far Western Kentucky which, likewise, had long been in Democratic hands. Whitfield is retiring this go-round after 22 years in office.

The collapse came in full view in 1997 when a group of renegade Democrats in the state Senate, led by Sen. Larry Saunders, D-Louisville, and Sen. Benny Ray Bailey, D-Hindman, forged an alliance with minority Republicans to oust Sen. John “Eck’’ Rose, D-Winchester, from the chamber’s presidency, grabbing the authority to appoint committees and control the flow of legislation.

That didn’t last long. Some Senate Democrats switched to Republicans and the GOP, taking advantage of Democratic disunity, picked up seats. Republicans now hold a 27-11 edge.

Much of the credit for this breathtaking switcheroo belongs to U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, who took a moribund GOP and showed what it takes to win with his own victory over incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee’’ Huddleston, D-Elizabethtown, in 1984. McConnell toiled ceaselessly to build a party from the bottom up, taking advantage of Kentucky’s natural conservatism to turn the tables in a historically Democratic state.

The Democratic outlook remains bleak. Obama is historically unpopular in Kentucky, much of it having to do with the fact that he is an African-American in a state that is 88 percent white. Clinton, even though her husband, former President Bill Clinton, carried the state twice, is unlikely to do much better, even though she is running against Republican Donald Trump, whose talents appear to be better suited for a ward in Bellevue Hospital in New York.

Still, there may be hint of a revival. Former state Auditor Adam Edelen – whose re-election loss remains a curiosity nine months after the fact – and Matt Jones, a popular sports radio personality, are launching what is being called the New Kentucky Project, offering a progressive political agenda that seeks to offer fresh ideas and develop new leaders.

Both Edelen and Jones insist they aren’t trying to supplant the Kentucky Democratic Party and that Republicans are invited to participate. But it’s obvious that any endeavor trying to pull the commonwealth into the 21st Century is going to have to use Democrats as the tow truck.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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One Comment

  1. Richard Reinhart says:

    Good read.
    May I throw in to the bowl the name of Shannon Hill
    Mostly unknown however he has a fair following
    He resides in Ashland, Ky.
    He is not unfamiliar with politics.
    Pretty up to date, and a rather astute individual
    You should seek him out, contact him, see what you think.
    Join the group progressive liberals of the Tri State
    You should find him there.

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