Presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jack Conway won’t attend President Obama’s visit to Louisville on Thursday.
He’s instead scheduled to be in Eastern Kentucky for meetings about heroin and prescription drug abuse. But a political scientist says it’s unsurprising that a Kentucky Democrat would skip a visit to the state by the party’s national leader.
Obama, who will talk about the economy in Kentucky’s largest city, has been unpopular in Kentucky and state Democrats have distanced themselves from the president in recent years.
State politicians distance themselves from the president to avoid losing favor with more conservative Democrats across the state, said Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.
“If you’re trying to attract them then clearly you’re going to have to portray a face to them that’s not cozying up to the so-called liberal bastions in the party starting with President Obama,” Clayton said.
Obama overwhelming lost to his rivals in Kentucky in the last two presidential elections. The state tends to skew toward the GOP in federal elections and elects mostly Democratic candidates in statewide races. The state’s governor is a Democrat and the state House is controlled by the party, but Republicans make up seven of eight members of the state’s federal delegation.
During the Kentucky U.S. Senate race in 2014, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to say whether she voted for Obama. Grimes lost the race to incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell by a wide margin.
That’s the impulse of Kentucky Democrats—steer clear of the president, Clayton said. But that impulse may not be advisable.
“I kind of think that some of this distancing themselves from the president is not always the best thing to do. Particularly, there are a lot of policies and programs that he has initiated and he supports that many Kentuckians support as well,” Clayton said.
Polls show that Obama’s signature achievement—the Affordable Care Act—isn’t popular, but 500,000 Kentuckians have signed up for health insurance through Kynect, the state-run health exchange implemented through the legislation.
Obama’s environmental priorities have been unpopular in the state, especially the implementation of more stringent carbon regulations.
State Republicans often try to draw the connection between Obama and Kentucky Democratic candidates. Republican National Committee spokesman Raffi Williams called Conway’s absence from the event on Thursday “conspicuous.”
“Jack Conway is obviously just another Kentucky Democrat candidate who doesn’t have the courage to tell Kentuckians the truth about his support for Barack Obama and his liberal agenda,” Williams said in a statement.
State Democrats, including Grimes in her 2014 campaign, have found themselves in the awkward position of opposing the national Democrats’ platform and courting those who worry that carbon policies amount to a fatal blow to the already crippled coal industry.
Last week Conway received an endorsement from the United Mine Workers Association, partly for “standing up to the EPA to protect jobs and keep miners working.”
In his capacity as Attorney General, Conway joined a multi-state lawsuit against the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations.
Kentucky has voted for Republican presidential candidates since George W. Bush’s first campaign in 2000. The state has also had a majority of Republican congressmen and senators since the mid-1990s.
But only one other Republican has been elected Kentucky governor since Louie Nunn in 1968, and Kentucky Democrats have fought off repeated Republican attempts to control the state House.
“Kentucky voters view state and federal elections very differently—it’s really like comparing apples to oranges,” said David Bertstein with the Kentucky Democratic Party in an email.
“Our message this year of standing up to big special interests and fighting to put Kentucky families first resonates with voters across the political spectrum, which is the real reason why Kentucky Democratic candidates will win in November.”