Kentucky Death Match: A Battle for the Republican Party in Coal Country | Politics News | Rolling Stone
Every March, across the commonwealth of Kentucky, the Republican Party throws a series of Lincoln-Reagan fundraising dinners. Candidates for state and federal office are expected to attend, hobnob, serve themselves from a hot buffet, perhaps enjoy an alcoholic beverage (depending on the wetness or dryness of the particular county), certainly remain standing after “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” (which even non-Kentuckians agree to be hands down the greatest of state songs) and, of course, solemnly bow their heads while a local reverend offers a blessing. At the Lincoln-Reagan dinner held this year in Murray, in southwestern Kentucky, the reverend took note of daylight saving time and wondered, “Maybe we should think of national savings time? Father, help us save this nation!”
The most Midwestern of the Southern states, Kentucky ranks near the top of the nation in drug-overdose deaths and income inequality. Since Bill Clinton left office, Kentucky has been consistently red when it comes to presidential elections, and the long, slow death of the coal industry, accelerated in recent years by competition from cheap natural gas and regulatory threats from the Obama administration, has made the political landscape only more treacherous for liberals. Yet the state’s most popular elected official, Gov. Steve Beshear, is a Democrat who cannily figured out a way to design one of the most successful state health exchanges in the nation, despite the toxicity of President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky. (Beshear is the only Southern governor who did not reject the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.)
Back in Washington, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, once dismissed as a joke from the libertarian fringe, has become the fastestrising freshman senator since, well, Obama, much to the horror of the Republican establishment. That establishment happens to be more or less embodied by Kentucky’s other senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who now faces his toughest re-election in decades, despite his opportunistic embrace of his junior colleague. Could the deep fissures rending the modern GOP, its stumbling old guard versus the ascendant insurgency, be encapsulated more perfectly by any two men?
The Lincoln-Reagan dinner took place in a ballroom on the campus of Murray State University. There was exactly one African-American in the audience, pitchers of water and iced tea graced every table (the county is mostly dry), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, flown in as keynote speaker, worked the room. Passing my table, Perry, who now sports chunky black glasses, leaned over and gave me a hearty attaboy backslap, most likely mistaking me for a western Kentucky Republican. A friendly couple seated at the same table had just been giving me driving directions to Louisville, using the largest gun store in the state (Whittaker’s, in Owensboro) as a landmark. The band was playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”