This column originally appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By Scott Jennings
Alison Grimes, running against U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in 2014, released a television ad in which the only image was of a burning house. Voters rejected her anti-McConnell nonsense, but the image of a house fully engulfed in flames has become a perfect metaphor for the current status of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
The fire at 1313 Democrat Street started as mere faulty wiring, found by Kentucky’s inspectors when they elected McConnell to the U.S. Senate in 1984. Six years later, the unrepaired wiring created a spark when McConnell won reelection. The landlords did nothing as their home grew increasingly imperiled.
By 1994, most folks in the house could smell smoke. The election of Ed Whitfield and Ron Lewis to Congress saw a flood of tenants in the western part of the property vacate the premises. They knew something was up.
In 1998, the fire spread to the backyard where a tree planted by Wendell Ford succumbed to the flames. Ford, the last Democrat to win over 50 percent of the vote in a statewide federal election (1992), couldn’t muster enough water from the garden hose to save his old oak from Jim Bunning.
By 1999, prominent tenants Bob Leeper and Dan Seum were fed up with the property’s management. They packed up and moved out, transitioning control of the Kentucky Senate to the GOP. A 20-18 advantage then is now a 27-11 supermajority.
In 2002, the fire rose higher as McConnell won a 29 point reelection over Lois Combs, the scion of one the property’s chief architects. In 2003, the flames shooting from 1313 Democrat Street could be seen for miles as Ernie Fletcher defeated Ben Chandler for Governor. Two historic names found on the property’s cornerstone had been felled in two straight elections.
In 2007, a Frankfort tempest in a teapot produced enough rain to temporarily tamp down the flames, as Steve Beshear, a landlord from years gone by, came back to end Fletcher’s run. The homeowners thought everything was back to normal, and that punishment would soon come to the guy who started the mess 23 years prior.
They were wrong.
In 2008, McConnell proved the fire still burned as he weathered the storm against Bruce Lunsford. Democrats tried to reclaim the western part of the house, but Brett Guthrie absorbed their best shot. That same year, a new landlord named Barack Obama appeared on the scene and began distributing kerosene.
By 2010, the fire was rising again. Rand Paul took over for Bunning and more Republicans went to the State Senate, knocking off two incumbent Democrats along the way. By 2014, the house was fully engulfed. McConnell again won reelection and became U.S. Senate Majority Leader. All but one member of the congressional delegation had become Republican.
And that brings us to last Tuesday. The house at 1313 Democrat Street is nearly unrecognizable following Matt Bevin’s blowout win over Conway for Governor. Ryan Quarles, Allison Ball, and Mike Harmon won constitutional offices, further tearing down what once seemed like an indestructible monument to liberalism. Democrats Andy Beshear and Grimes, narrowly elected on Tuesday, join House Speaker Greg Stumbo in wondering: “Is this property even salvageable?”
It is a good question. Since landlord Obama came in 2008, the Democrats have added just 22,961 new people to their rolls. In that same period, Republicans have added 205,671, a ten-fold advantage. For the first time in years, Kentucky has a congressional district (the fourth) with more Republicans than Democrats.
Of course, the foundation of the home persists. The Kentucky State House, which has withstood the flames for decades, remains on the property. Stumbo says he plans to rebuild, but the the fire must be hot as he completely melted down on election night. In fact, Stumbo says he plans to rebuild the “party of Obama” on the back of a “lady jockey” riding “an Arkansas Traveler.”
If you are a Democrat running in 2016, let that sink in. Your fate is in the hands of a man who says he “believes in the core values that [Obama] represents,” and promises that Hillary Clinton is “going to come here to Kentucky” during your campaign. (You can switch parties down in Grimes’s office or at your county courthouse, if you feel so compelled.)
McConnell and Bevin are devising other plans; both have made flipping the state house a top priority. In fact, if Bevin achieves that objective, he can change Frankfort more in four years than all governors have changed it in the last century.
More ominous emergencies loom, as the house at 1313 Democrat Street sits on a fault line long overdue for seismic activity. The powerful shaking to come will open a fissure in the earth big enough to swallow what’s left of the old house.
Not to worry, though–new contractors will build something far better than what stood before. The old homeowners will be distant memories. The property will be under new management, and Kentucky has plenty of conservative tenants ready to move in.
Instead of calling Obama and Clinton, perhaps Stumbo should call 9-1-1.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this piece contains hyperlinked citations.