BONNIE GREER looks at the two-horse race emerging in the state of Kentucky where a war veteran is taking on a Trump stooge.
It is possible that Kentucky may be very special to the Queen.
Known formally as the Commonwealth of Kentucky, it is one of four states called ‘commonwealth’, along with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia.
But none of the others have had the horses of Elizabeth II bred in their state, nor have they received as many visits from the Queen, who is said to be an expert in thoroughbred breeding and blood lines.
She enjoyed a private stay in the state in the 1980s at a prestigious horse farm on the outskirts of Lexington. It was not until 2007 that she finally saw the world-famous Kentucky Derby. And no doubt had a bit of the Commonwealth’s world-famous drink: whiskey.
Spelled with an ‘e’ in it, it is also known as ‘bourbon’, also as ‘bourbon whiskey’. Whatever you say and however you spell it, it is important to acknowledge and understand that 95% of what is called ‘bourbon whiskey’ in the States comes from Kentucky. It is their pride and joy. Taken with a bit of that other local brand, KFC, founded by a guy who sold chicken at a roadside restaurant in the city of Corbin during the Depression, you would be experiencing some real Kentucky eating. At least as enjoyed outside of the state.
Kentucky, along with Maryland, are known as ‘borderline states’. They exist on the frontier of what is called ‘North’ and ‘South’, in the jargon of the American Civil War. An enslaved person could escape and get to the ‘North’ – Ohio and freedom. Or be taken from there and ‘sold down the river’ – the Ohio River or Mississippi River – to Kentucky and enslavement. The distance between slavery and freedom in Kentucky was very short.
Border people are considered unique, a little bit different, sometimes contradictory.
In war, a border area can experience the worst of it: brother against brother. Kentucky was of key importance during the American Civil War. Its border reality is evident in the number of soldiers from the state who fought on the side of sedition: 35,000. Some 125,000 stayed loyal to the Union.
Abraham Lincoln considered that winning back Kentucky was key to holding and re-building the Union. He had been born in the state, as had the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Brother against brother.
The Ridgetop Shawnee Tribe descend from multiracial settlers who arrived between 1790-1870, their ancestors migrating from central Appalachia. They and the Pine Mountain Indian Community comprise the indigenous population and both nations are active in the politics of the state.
The African American community is centred in and around Louisville, where the city’s most famous son, Muhammad Ali, was born. He is now a state icon and a source of immense pride.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, about Kentucky during the slavery era, was the second biggest-selling book in the US in the 19th century, only outsold by the Bible. One of the triggers for the Civil War came out of slave-holding Kentucky.
In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr, and other national civil rights leaders and celebrities led a march on Frankfort, the state capitol, to protest against segregation of public places.
In 1838, Kentucky passed a women’s suffrage law.
In 1867, the year after a march by the African American community for the right to vote, African American women organised a barbecue at which the black and white community were invited to give speeches in support of black suffrage. And to eat good Kentucky food.
Women, their lives and opinions, play a big part in the political life of this deeply conservative, largely white and rural state.
But the Kentucky contradictions are there too. State senator Alice Forgy Kerr, a Republican, introduced a bill protecting pregnant workers as well as providing accommodation for breastfeeding. She is fighting to get this through in a legislature that is overwhelmingly male. The senator also supported the so-called foetal heartbeat bill that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, yet another attempt to eliminate legal abortion in the US altogether.
It is a woman who is challenging the all-powerful leader of the United States senate and Trump stooge, Mitch McConnell, to represent the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The Democrat challenger for the election, to be held in November 2020, is Amy McGrath, a former Marine lieutenant colonel and the first woman to fly an F-18 fighter jet in combat. In a 20-year career in the Marines she flew 89 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is married to a retired navy commander and is a mother of three.
The fact that McConnell and Trump both managed to avoid combat in the Vietnam War altogether is not an aid in this deeply patriotic state.
More Republican than the rest of the country, the state went big for Trump in 2016. It has voted for Republicans in eight of the last 10 presidential elections, the exception being Bill Clinton who carried the state twice. Trump won the Bluegrass State by 30% in 2016, and in Kentucky he still has a rarity for him: a net positive rating.
McConnell is confident and the odds are that he will win. But the Republicans are not relaxed.
McGrath is raising big money. And state Dems are promising her all the cash she needs. She will exploit the fact that she is a veteran and will double down on the tragic opioid epidemic ravaging the state.
She made a mistake, some have said, by saying that she would have voted for the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh – Trump’s nominee who was embroiled in a bitter battle to stave off claims of sexual assault, which he denies – then backtracking on it.
But she said this in Kentucky, which might not have been a bad thing. Plus, allegations of sleaze surrounding McConnell’s wife, the transportation secretary Elaine Chao (critics have accused her of using her office to benefit an international shipping firm run by her family), make him look like the swampiest of swamp creatures, a dug-in-deep dweller of the Washington habitat that Trump promised to drain.
Add to this the allegations emerging about some of Trump’s cronies and his pre-presidential circle, revelling in an atmosphere that would rival anything Caligula got up to, and things might not be as solid for McConnell, the 45th president’s chief enabler on Capitol Hill.
Kentucky has historically seen low turnouts at elections. It is one of the hardest states to vote in. There is no early voting. Absentee and mail-in ballots are reserved only for the elderly and the military. A voter must have a Kentucky-issued licence plate or ID card and the address must match the one on file. Polls open at 6am and close at 6pm. With a higher turnout than usual, who knows what could occur?
The fact is that the Bluegrass State is probably too red to elect a Democratic senator in the near future. Except if something unexpected happens.
Yet McGrath lost her Congressional race by only 3% points in 2018. Trump won the district by 15% points in 2016.
Mitch McConnell describes himself as the ‘Grim Reaper’ for progressive politics. The irony is this: if McGrath can persuade this deeply conservative state that she can ‘drain the swamp’ and deliver what Trump promised them in 2016 – relief for their beleaguered state – something quite miraculous might happen. Kentucky might finally show Mitch the door.