LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If the Kentucky Democratic primary were the Derby, Hillary Clinton would be racing around the track a dozen times right now, passing the finish line again and again. Anything to secure a victory in the race.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, of course, is running hard in Kentucky, but that is to be expected. His brand is stubborn relentlessness, and he wants to pile up delegates to improve his policy and cult clout at the Democratic convention in July in Philadelphia.
Clinton is a different story. Statistically and practically, she is the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee. And yet there is a nagging worry even among her own party insiders that she is going to be a tough sell in November, the favorable Electoral College math notwithstanding.
A string of recent losses to Sanders — and his continued strong showing, stronger than Clinton’s, in test match-ups against Republican Donald Trump — have heightened that concern.
So although Clinton surely wishes she didn’t have to spend any more time or money on the nomination race, she is doing just that in Kentucky.
Her campaign has rolled out new TV ads and scheduled eight stops in two days leading up to the primary, including one Sunday at a black church here in Louisville with popular local Democrats, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.
“She was terrific,” said Yarmuth, the lone Democrat in Congress from a state that has gone from blue to tea-party red under the guidance of Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.
So why the big Kentucky push?
For one, Clinton can’t afford a repeat of what happened in another coal state, West Virginia, where her attempts to explain the inevitable decline of the fuel came off (unfairly) as a condescending wish to have that very thing happen.
Kentucky’s economy is much more diversified, but she can’t take chances. And she will need at least some coal-field votes to win states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania in the fall.
Second, the primary is closed, meaning that only people registered as Democrats can vote. Clinton generally has done better when independents and the youngest voters — keys to Sanders’ support — either can’t vote or haven’t registered.
Third, Kentucky has been Clinton territory in the past, and the brand, though fading, remains popular in the state.
Some of the earliest political and financial supporters of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton came from Lexington, and his good-ol’-boy, country-cousin style played perfectly here.
When Bill was campaigning in the state a few years ago on behalf of a local candidate, former Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) declared that when Clinton was president, America’s “streets were paved with gold.” The crowd laughed, but not derisively.
Bill Clinton beat President George H.W. Bush in Kentucky in 1992 and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996. He was the last Democrat to carry the state — and may be the last for a while.
That heritage is no doubt why Hillary declared this weekend as she campaigned that she was considering putting her husband “in charge” of reviving the economy.
It’s a sweeping assertion she may regret later, but you do what you’ve got to do for the race you’re in — and raising her husband’s profile is a smart thing to do here. He, too, has been all over the state in recent days and weeks.
The fourth reason why Hillary is betting big on Kentucky is demographics. To be sure, it is a mostly white state (not her best playing field), but Louisville and Lexington have major pockets of reliably Democratic African-American voters.
And Louisville is the rare Southern city that’s actually a major labor union center. Kentucky is the only Southern state that doesn’t operate under right-to-work laws (McConnell has been beating his head against that one for decades), and the AFL-CIO is growing even more powerful in Louisville with the addition of thousands of Teamster workers at UPS (joining other union workers at General Electric, Ford and chemical plants here).
The union leadership is solidly pro-Clinton, and there have been noticeable labor contingents at her rallies here.
The combination of black and union voters — plus the popularity of Yarmuth and Fischer — should give Hillary what she needs to beat Bernie with a strong metro push.
But there are signs that Sanders is still a tough out.
At a party last week, former Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler of Lexington (grandson of the famous Gov. Albert “Happy” Chandler) and his wife showed up with their grown children in tow.
One of them was wearing a “Feel the Bern” T-shirt. And he got a lot of compliments for it.
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