Krystal Ball: Kentucky governor's race is a lesson for Democrats

Opinion by: Krystal Ball

Holy cow. I can't believe they managed to pull it off, but they actually did. It looks like Democrats have won back the Governor's mansion in Kentucky, a state that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister MORE won by 30 points. They did it by driving up the margins in the urban and suburban areas, sure, but also by outperforming in a Donald Trump stronghold: the coal counties in the Eastern part of the state.

Last weekend I was in Kentucky. I talked to Democrats before the national media caught on that this was an important race. So for those of you who aren't "Kentuckyfiles" like myself, here were the basic dynamics of the race. Kentucky has long been Democratic at the state level but that trend had completely reversed in the Trump era. In fact, the just defeated Republican governor Matt Bevin, a brash outsider businessman, was ushered into office in 2015 on a populist wave that in many ways foreshadowed Trump's victory.

He proceeded to govern as the jerkiest member of the chamber of commerce promptly implementing union busting right to work legislation and fighting tooth and nail to strip Kentuckians of the healthcare they'd gained through the A.C.A. Medicaid expansion, which was more successfully implemented in Kentucky than in any other state in the country. The uninsured rate in the state for low-income adults had dropped from 43 percent to 13 percent. But Bevin really really screwed up when he messed with teacher's pensions.

Now in a lot of rural towns in Kentucky, the school system is the heartbeat of the community, not to mention one of the major employers. Not only did Matt Bevin attempt to mess with their pensions, but to add literal insult to injury, he insulted the teachers who shut down schools and rallied at the Capitol building in solidarity. He called them selfish and thugs and went so far as to accuse them of being accessories to sexual assault. I’m not kidding he really did that. In other words, rather than the outsider populist he ran as, he turned out to be a rich guy prick who delighted in insulting workers and messing with their healthcare, unions, and pensions.

Now I must be honest, the Democratic candidate A.G. Andy Beshear is not a phenom in the charisma department but he does have a well known last name in the state. His dad was the popular governor who implemented the Medicaid expansion and from everything I could tell he ran quite an excellent and disciplined campaign on the ground. But really, this race wasn't about Andy Beshear. It was all about saying "f-you" to Bevin.

Beshear won by running up the margins in the suburbs and urban areas but those aren’t nearly enough in Kentucky to get you over the finish line on their own. No, it was coal country that came through and gave Beshear the numbers he needed to pull off the upset. The eastern part of the state is culturally conservative, yes, but also extremely populist. They were not having it with Bevin's attacks on workers.

Now look, Democrats are rightfully giddy about this result. especially since Don Jr and Pence and Trump all turned up to try to drag Bevin, the "pain in the ass" as Trump called him, across the finish line. But let's be clear, Beshear won in spite of national Democrats, not because of them. The populist critique of Bevin that won this race is not remotely what Democrats have used to go after Trump.

For example, Kentucky Democrats did not win by launching esoteric attacks on Bevin about the norms and guardrails of democracy or lofty ideals like freedom of the press, even though Bevin is probably even more hostile to the press than Trump is. I can promise you that Ukraine, Russia, and impeachment were only ever mentioned by the Republican side. Instead, Democrats pulled off this win by staying lightning focused on the way that Bevin hurt working class families. Being back in the state was a big reminder for me about how non-DC and New York elites talk about politics. Just listen to how Teamsters Local 783 President John Stovall describes Trump. It’s way more effective than the Ukraine/Russia norms and guardrails hand wringing that you are hit over the head with here.

Stovall says that Trump's hurt the middle-class and lower-income and his tax credits have benefited the rich." Simple. Straightforward. And connected to people's lives. not contempt-filled, judgey or condescending.

On the other side, Bevin very much tried to use the dumb "socialism sux" argument that the Democratic establishment keeps telling us we should be terrified about. He tried to tie Andy Beshear to AOC and the Green New Deal and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Warren: Bloomberg making debate will show how other candidates handle 'an egomaniac billionaire' HuffPost reporter: Sanders could win plurality of delegates but lose nomination MORE. Obviously, it failed. Here he is deriding "Crazy Bernie's" agenda of giving out free stuff and of course murdering the American dream.

The accompanying tweet read...

“Bernie Sanders is in Louisville, supporting his friend, Andy Beshear, and spreading his hateful class warfare and communist ideology. Kentucky voters....which side are you on? Do you support socialism or do you still believe that America is the greatest nation on earth?

I guess it was socialism and class warfare for the win then!

New polls this week of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have shown that Trump is in position to potentially win the electoral college again, this in spite of the fact that the only story the mainstream media writes is that Trump is bad. Dems should not use this Kentucky victory as an excuse to feel like everything is going great with their impeachment strategy and national messaging. Instead they should use it as an opportunity to learn from this "red state" that unexpectedly turned blue on the back of a working class populist backlash. So here's my advice: move on from Ukraine as fast as you possibly can and embrace the class war.