Kentucky’s Next Democratic Party Chair Has A Tough Gig Ahead

Jan 12, 2016

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo (left) speaks with reporters in Frankfort.
Credit Kentucky LRC

On Monday, reporters huddled in the state Capitol waiting for a potentially big announcement. They were aware of rumors — incorrect ones, it would turn out — that multiple Democratic state House members had switched to the Republican side, changing the balance of power in the last Democratic-controlled legislative branch in the South.

That Kentucky political observers would even entertain the thought shows a palatable shift in the balance of power in a state where Democrats have a decades-long advantage in local politics.

Now, with an ascendant state GOP, the Kentucky Democratic Party is looking for a new leader.

Last weekend, Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Patrick Hughes announced he was stepping down after less than a year on the job.

State Democrats are in a perilous position. As party leaders look to replace Hughes, they should have a couple of things in mind, political observers say.

“They need someone who can raise money,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

As Republicans gain momentum, the party is raking in a lot of money. Last year, Republicans won races for governor, state auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner. Even pollsters were surprised by some of the outcomes.

Now that Republicans have their sights set on flipping the House — including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who plans to pitch in fundraising and recruiting help — Democrats will have to build up their war chest, Cross said.

“They have to go make sure they have a strong campaign, because Mitch McConnell is going to be putting his money into state legislative campaigns in order to take over the House,” said Cross, also a longtime Kentucky politics journalist and columnist.

With special elections for four House seats in March, it’s looking more difficult for Democrats to keep that edge. Republicans have already flipped a couple House members, and all 100 House seats will be up for election in November. Cross said they are going to need to find “someone who is willing to take up a losing cause,” among other things.

Jonathan Miller, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd and a former state treasurer, was the state Democratic chair for a short time in 2007. He said that position is tough work that just got tougher.

“Those were the longest four months of my life, and my job back then working at the direction of a gubernatorial candidate is far easier than whoever is going to have to take this chair now,” he said.

The gig is more complicated, Miller said, because many party insiders will offer different ideas about how they hold onto the Democratic Party’s last shreds of power in the state.

“The new party chair is going to be having to take direction from a lot of different directions, and that is going to be a real challenge,” he said.

The future path of the Kentucky Democratic Party is already under discussion. Former state Auditor Adam Edelen, a rising star in the party whose November re-election loss shocked supporters, recently said the party must begin adapting to a minority status.

There are optimists in the party, though.

Dale Emmons, a Kentucky Democratic political consultant, said the party might still be able to hold onto some power, including the state House majority, where they hold a 50-48 advantage.

“I think what Democrats need to do is look for an opportunity to offer a counterattack to the attacks that have been leveled at us,” Emmons said.

Because Democrats have had power in Kentucky for so many years, they have a vast fundraising network in place, Miller said. But without the governorship, Democratic donors might be less inclined to write checks.

“So it’s incumbent on the new party chair to get the right message and help us articulate it in a compelling way so people can hear it,” he said.