Joe Graviss was out dropping off literature to potential voters when one saw him outside his window.
“He came out of his house and said, ‘Are you Joe Graviss?” Graviss recalled. “He said, ‘For months, no one would return my call, return my emails. I could not speak to a soul about the problems I had with unemployment (benefits). I called you, and within days I had money in my bank account.’”
Graviss, the current representative in House District 56, ran unsuccessfully for Senate District 7 this year and campaigned by posting his phone number on materials with the promise of helping voters get the information and support they needed.
Graviss told the voter he appreciated the comment and said that he hoped he voted for him.
The voter put his head down.
“You voted straight Republican, didn’t you?” Graviss asked.
“I’m sorry,” he responded. “Well, pro-life is a big issue for me.”
Graviss told him that he has emphasized his pro-life stance throughout his campaigns. The voter told him that he wished he had known that before he voted early.
Graviss said that votes like that are a result of a major problem in the Kentucky Democratic Party: national politics seeping into state elections.
“I think the national Republican message is splattering on Kentucky Dems unfairly,” Graviss said. “It appears that Kentucky Democrats are getting creamed by that. I don’t think that the national Republican message is accurate for all Kentucky, but it appears that the majority of Kentucky voters believe it.”
He pointed to his Senate race, in which Republican Adrienne Southworth defeated him by almost 10 percentage points, and Lamar Allen’s close loss to Woodford County Republican Daniel Fister in the District 56 race to succeed Graviss.
Neither House District 56 nor Senate District 7, as the districts are currently configured, has ever been represented by a Republican. That will change when Southworth and Fister take office in January. Rep. Derrick Graham, who has held the House District 57 seat since 2003, will be the only Democrat representing Franklin County in the statehouse.
The 'Red Tidal Wave'
While control of the nation’s highest office may flip from Republican to Democrat, no such flips were found across Kentucky.
“It was a red tidal wave with a tsunami and avalanche on top of it,” Graviss said. “I believe it was because the voters were buying the propaganda that they are seeing and hearing that Dems are the problem and Democrats are the enemy, and they voted straight Republican.”
The Republicans who won the seats in Franklin County acknowledge that widespread support for President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played a role in their successful campaigns, but insisted that the “coattail effect” doesn’t paint the whole picture of their wins.
Southworth, a 32-year-old who leans Libertarian, said that her message to “regular people” like herself resonated across the district.
“I think it’s awesome that the people have spoken,” she said. “It’s been a long time since the regular people have been represented … and it’s usually the political class that does so. It’s time for the regular workers to have someone representing them in Frankfort.”
Southworth, a former deputy chief of staff for former Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, was controversially fired by former Gov. Matt Bevin — to Hampton’s displeasure.
According to the State Board of Elections, Southworth lost to Graviss in his home county of Woodford and in Franklin County by 800 and 3,000 votes, respectively.
However, she walloped Graviss in District 7's three more rural counties — Anderson, Gallatin and Owen — by at least 40 percentage points.
Senate 7 was last redistricted after the 2012 election, when it was composed of Anderson, Franklin, Woodford and part of Fayette County.
Current Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, whose son Ken ran as an independent this year and garnered only 3% of the vote, won the last contested election in 2012 by 10,000 votes and 15 percentage points. In 2016, he ran unopposed.
That left Southworth with little data to work from. But she said that she studied it and figured that a large chunk of people in all counties elected not to participate in Carroll’s unopposed election.
She liked the math.
A total of 39,851 people voted for Carroll when he was unopposed in 2016. In the same election, 33,946 people in the district voted for Donald Trump, who was opposed by Hillary Clinton and some third party candidates.
Julian Carroll says that even had he faced opposition in 2016, he would have won.
Graviss said that his campaign conducted two polls, both of which made him more confident in his odds.
"They were clearly wrong," Graviss said. "However, even if the poll showed me up 20 I would have worked just as hard. Suffice to say, they were allegedly quality polls by a quality, reputable firm that were in-depth and statistically valid. But they were wrong."
Southworth attributes her win to her campaign focusing on the desires of regular workers, as opposed to the “political class,” and turnout in Anderson County, which ended being the highest in the state. She also said her coordination with the state Republican Party was limited mostly to sharing maps and voter information.
Because of COVID-19, the Southworth campaign held a limited number of events.
She also, with the help of a campaign intern and a team of volunteers, acted as her own campaign manager.
Southworth said she used her background as a graphic designer who previously worked in the wedding industry to help reach voters online — particularly on Facebook.
“A lot of it is reaching people and getting straight to their brain, heart or right to their eyes,” Southworth said. “… saying what people are thinking, I think, is more valuable than getting a perfect graphic or post. We have to get their attention as they're scrolling down Facebook.”
Nick Nash, the 25-year-old campaign manager for Daniel Fister, confirmed that Southworth didn’t coordinate much with the state party.
Nash did, though, in working to get Fister — who twice ran unsuccessfully for the House District 56 seat — elected.
“Dan had a lot to prove because he had lost two times before,” Nash said. “There’s no hiding that or disputing that. He lost 60-40 both times, and we had to at least swing the pendulum 10 points.”
Nash said Fister’s performance in Woodford County, where he beat Allen by 2,000 votes, was key. He pointed specifically to a perhaps unexpected edge that Fister got in the northern reaches of Woodford County in Millville and in the area around Midway, traditional Democratic strongholds, as well as the portions of southeast Franklin County in the district.
Nash said the Fister campaign knocked on 35,000 doors and made 40,000 phone calls in total.
He said that the campaign tried to reach every voter in Woodford and Franklin counties, but was more strategic about the voters it contacted in Fayette County, which Allen won handily.
Nash said that while Allen’s win over Woodford Countian Bob Gibson in the Democratic primary may have been a surprise, it showed them that Allen would be a formidable opponent.
“That was the first sign of how hard of a worker Lamar was going to be,” Nash said. “In Fayette, see, that was Lamar’s home turf. The signs were on both sides of the streets. It was a little intimidating, to be honest.”
Graviss agreed, calling Allen a “rising star” in the party.
“I want to thank all of our supporters who have truly made a difference in our historic race,” Allen wrote in concession on Facebook. “I wish Dan Fister all the best in his new role as representative elect. Our work continues for public education and affordable healthcare in Kentucky.”
A signal to Nash that the Democrats may have been vulnerable in a seat they’ve held since the 1970s was an attack ad that Woodford County Democrats posted to social media and in the Woodford Sun.
The ad showed a photo of a pro-life rally at the Capitol that Fister attended. A Confederate flag waved nearby.
“I hate what that flag stands for, and Dan feels the exact same way,” Nash said. “The day that was posted was the day I knew they were terrified … . The past two times he ran, the Woodford Dems completely ignored Dan.”
Nash ultimately attributed the win to Fister’s roots in Woodford County and his merits as a candidate.
“The reason this race was so interesting was because it hadn’t flipped yet … and that’s because of the old school Democratic machine,” Nash said. “These are conservative Democrats, there’s no question. Dan talked to many of them and said, ‘I’m not some big threatening Republican. I’m a fiscal conservative, and I’m going to focus on the economy and the issues that matter to you.’”
A postmortem analysis
Graviss, Julian Carroll and Kentucky Gazette Editor Laura Cullen-Glasscock all agreed that the results of Senate 7 and District 56 have a lot to do with Kentucky voters’ growing loyalty to the Republican Party.
In the past, many Kentucky voters chose Republicans on the national stage while opting for Democrats in state races.
“That gap is gone,” Graviss said on election night. “There wasn’t an open seat won by a Democrat, and there were incumbent Democrats that lost.”
Cullen-Glassock said that it’s been an ongoing issue for Democrats all across the state and that these seat flips only strengthen the Republican Party’s supermajority in both state chambers.
Still, Graviss’ nearly 10-point loss to Southworth surprised Cullen-Glasscock. She had predicted it would be a toss-up.
“I think that Democrats thought they were safe, and that Joe Graviss had a lot of name recognition — and it’s kind of a natural progression for some people who want to run for higher office,” Cullen-Glasscock said.
The result didn’t surprise former Gov. Carroll, who said that Graviss should have remained in his more Woodford-centric House District 56.
“In my judgment, he would have kept that seat,” Carroll said. “He was an excellent legislator. He was a good speaker and he ran in a district where people got to really know him well. He had a much more confined area in his home county and a few precincts over here in Franklin County.”
Graviss said that he would have had a good shot at keeping that seat, but doesn’t regret his run for the Senate. He also said that he felt comforted because he thinks there’s nothing he could have done to change the result given the district’s demographics.
Carroll, like Graviss, bemoaned the Republican Party’s successful messaging in the state. But he went a step further in placing blame on the Kentucky Democrats for allegedly sticking too close to the national Democratic Party and not meeting many voters where they are in their conservative views.
“On a couple of major fronts, I’m tremendously disappointed,” Carroll said. “I’m disappointed in the performance of the Democratic Party. I’ve consistently pointed out to my fellow Democrats for years that our alignment with the national Democratic Party was killing us in Kentucky, particularly on gun control and abortion.”
Cullen-Glassock said that Democrats may be well-served to look at focusing more on how they select candidates for each race. She said the Republicans in the state have a designated person whose job is to recruit in Johnathan Shell, who works for Mitch McConnell.
“I’m not hearing from people that there’s a real, coordinated strategy for picking candidates like the Republicans had when they appointed Jonathan Shell,” Cullen-Glassock said. "He was the point person for Republicans to travel the state and find people to run for office … . I just don’t see the Democrats doing that. From the Dems I’ve talked to, they just aren’t seeing a coordinated approach.”
Carroll suggested a complete overhaul of the party’s strategy, and that he may work toward that upon his retirement.
“The Democratic Party is going to have to take a look at itself in Kentucky if we expect to win any seats from here on,” Carroll said. “… We have to structure a party that is more amenable to rural voters. The party can’t keep running on the same themes that we’ve been running on, and I’ve told them that for over 20 years."