By Rainesford Stauffer
On November 4, President Donald Trump issued a warning to the people who showed up to his rally in Lexington, Kentucky, a red state he won by 30 points in 2016. He had traveled there to rally alongside Republican Governor Matt Bevin, the incumbent facing reelection the next day, and announced from the stage that a potential loss from Bevin in would send “a really bad message.” His upsell to Republican voters: the idea that voting Bevin out means voting Trump out, too. “You can’t let that happen to me,” he bellowed.
Yet the following day, Kentucky youth activists huddled around laptops and TV screens, and scrolled through social media as they watched people around their state send a message by voting Matt Bevin out, and electing Democratic candidate Andy Beshear as Governor by a margin of around 5,000 votes.
“Last night’s result was surprising to me,” Andrew Brennen, a 23-year-old Kentuckian, told MTV News. He knew there was strong disdain for Bevin, but “as a state we are typically apathetic when it comes to elections.” Voter turnout for this election was 42 percent in Kentucky, up a considerable amount from 30.7 percent in 2015.
Bevin excelled in unpopularity. After statewide sickouts in response to slashed budgets and pensions, the Governor blamed striking teachers for a child being shot, and suggested they could be to blame if a child was hypothetically poisoned or sexually assaulted as a result of not being in school. After Kentucky became the first state to win federal approval in imposing work requirements in the Medicaid program (which Bevin’s own administration said could cause 95,000 Kentuckians to lose Medicaid coverage), he attempted to sue 16 of his own constituents and threatened to pull out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion if the requirements were struck down. When he visited a chess club at a school in West Louisville, he remarked it was “not something you necessarily would have thought of when you think of this section of town,” and immediately received backlash for the classist and racist comment. Beyond odious policy, he also wore a suit printed with Trump’s face, and wandered over to a Democrat booth at the State Fair, for no other ostensible reason than to troll them.
“Motivated by a governor who blustered his way through office, attacked the press, attacked teachers, attacked communities of color, Kentuckians used their voices to send a resounding signal,” Brennen said. “And I’m so proud of us.”
As of publish time, Bevin has not conceded the race. In fact, he’s requested a recanvass, and claimed that thousands of absentee ballots were counted illegally, despite providing no further evidence or details. Yet as Kentucky makes its way into the national conversation, young Kentuckians are watching, and more importantly, mobilizing.
Kentucky politics, despite stereotypes, is complicated. The state is one of seven that have been run by a Democrat governor for more than 80 percent of the years between 1992 and 2013 (including Beshear’s father, Steven Beshear). Yet on Tuesday, most Kentucky races went solidly red, with Republican candidates cinching the Attorney General, Secretary of State, and Auditor positions, among others. To add to the layer cake of political complexity, as of August 2019, registered Democratic voters outnumbered registered Republican voters in Kentucky (though experts have said that doesn’t necessarily predict election results). Many have noted that, because the blue wave didn’t continue down-ballot, voting Bevin out likely had more to do with collective dislike of his openly combative ways than it did a statewide option to go blue.
“I can’t lie, I was shocked that Andy won, I did cry plenty throughout the night,” 18-year-old Will Powers told MTV News. “It was a show of what organizing and taking every race seriously can do, and a rejection of the policies of Bevin that undermine public education, equality, and civility.”
For young Kentuckians, the moment feels significant, and a turning point for both their state’s voter engagement and for the policies they may be able to rally their neighbors around in coming years.
“In Kentucky, nearly a quarter of formerly incarcerated individuals have lost their right to vote. I vote on their behalf,” Brennen said. “In Kentucky only 20 percent of 8th graders will graduate from college. I vote on their behalf. In Kentucky, we have one of the highest homeless youth populations in the country and some studies estimate that nearly half of those young people are LGBTQ+. I vote on their behalf.” He added that young Kentuckians are “deeply engaged” in politics, noted that they hold rallies and lobby the state legislature, and gave credit to the Kentucky YMCA for holding youth-in-government conferences where young people write bills and debate their colleagues.
At 17 years old, Amelia Loeffler wasn’t old enough to vote on Tuesday — but that didn’t stop her from getting involved. She estimates she knocked on around one thousand doors in get-out-the-vote efforts as an intern on the Beshear campaign. “It’s reassuring to see that hard work on the ground level can impact an election,” she told MTV News. “Since the margin between Bevin and Beshear was so close, I think it shows how much each conversation with a potential voter can matter.”
The election also felt personal to 18-year-old Madison Ortega, who also volunteered for the campaign: It was the first election she was old enough to vote in, and key issues on the ballot hit close to home. “I was also closely following healthcare throughout the race,” she explained. “My family and many others in Eastern Kentucky are forced to rely on Medicaid for sufficient healthcare.” She cites Beshear’s plan to rescind the state’s Medicare work requirements as a primary reason why she volunteered, and why she was excited to vote for him.
Young Kentuckians also see the election of a Democrat governor as an opportunity to defy stereotypes. Even with Kentucky’s precedent for electing Democrats into the role, there’s power in shaking up the status quo: Predictions were still calling the election in Bevin’s favor, and Trump remains popular across the state. But given that we are both one year out from the 2020 presidential election, and deep in the middle of impeachment conversations, electing a Democrat felt groundbreaking, especially for first-time voters who witnessed the impact of their vote in real time — and challenged an outsider’s notion of exactly how red the state is.
“I want the people to know that there are pieces of the world in Kentucky's backyard,” Elmedina Brkic told MTV News, referencing the migrant communities that live in cities like Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green. The 24-year-old was born in Mostar, a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but was raised and currently lives in Louisville. “Because of increasing wealth and income inequity, diverse neighborhoods of immigrants and refugees have been largely ignored. I want the people to know that young Kentuckians are aware of the world.”
Brkic sees public education as a gateway to improving Kentucky’s quality of life, and Bevin’s repeated attacks on teachers, which also included calling them “selfish,” “ignorant,” and worse were unacceptable to her. She wasn’t surprised Beshear won, but was surprised by how close the race was.
Even as election results rolled in on Twitter, out-of-state commenters feigned shock that Kentuckians could read, let alone vote — and such stereotypes are increasingly frustrating to young Kentuckians who see a different, more nuanced future for their state. While the state is often dinged nationally for being backward and out-of-touch, there are more political shifts within its legislation than meet the eye: Notably, when Bevin vetoed legislation that raised taxes to expand public education spending, a Republican-controlled legislature overrode that decision.
“When Americans make assumptions about Kentuckians based on our state’s at-times regressive policies, it only ends up hurting the Kentuckians working against those same regressive policies,” Ortega said.
Taylor Whitsell, 19, agreed. “I wish people understood that Kentucky is not a monolith,” he said, adding that both politicians and members of the media often willfully excludes people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants, and other groups from conversations about “rural Kentucky,” despite the fact that they continue to fight for progressive values in the state. “National politicians should not paint with a broad brush when it comes to characterizing Kentucky, and should instead seek to understand the needs and desires of diverse, local communities across our state.”
Still, Powers says he’s in a “weird spot” on how this election could impact future ones in Kentucky. Because Kentucky Democrats only beat “the least popular governor in the country” by 5,000 votes, while losing other statewide offices, he believes it’s still too soon to tell people Kentucky isn’t a competitive state.
“Don’t write us off,” he urged, adding that he is now focused on organizing to support whomever runs against Senator Mitch McConnell in 2020. Even so, he acknowledges the stakes ahead: “This is still Kentucky and federal elections are much different than statewide office elections,” he added.
There’s cautious optimism, but more importantly, there’s energy: Young Kentuckians are seeing the state be taken seriously nationally, even if that momentum is tethered to a governor notoriously loathed across the aisle. “It’s true there are lots of young Kentuckians who support President Trump and the candidates he endorses,” Loeffler said. “But Kentucky also has a strong contingent of young people who are mobilizing to elect Democrats.” And those young people aren’t giving up the fight simply because the needle has only moved so far.