Letcher County, Kentucky, and Wise County, Virginia, share a county line, a state line and lots of other things.
Demographically, they look about the same: Both are overwhelming white. (Letcher County is 97.9% white, Wise County is 91.8% white.)
Both have a median household income that’s well below the national figure. (Letcher County is $35,278, Wise County is $44,884 – the national median is $74,580.)
Both have economies historically based on coal.
And both have overwhelmingly voted Republican in recent years. In 2020, Letcher County voted 79.1% for Donald Trump. Across the mountain, Wise County voted 80.4% for Trump.
The next year, Wise bumped its Republican vote share in the governor’s race even more: 83.9% for Glenn Youngkin.
So based on that, how do you think Letcher County voted in last week’s gubernatorial election in Kentucky? Probably not like this: 52.3% for Democrat Andy Beshear.
Letcher County was not an outlier, either. Beshear carried 15 counties in the Appalachian portion of eastern Kentucky, mostly by small margins, but not entirely. In Floyd County, Kentucky, which voted 74.91% for Trump, Beshear took 57.1%. In Breathitt County, where Trump took 75.34%, Beshear rolled up 61.2%.
This was not the result of some landslide, either. The race between Beshear and Republican Daniel Cameron was a competitive one, and while Beshear won by a clear margin — 52.5% to 47.4% — it was still close. So how did Beshear manage to win so many Appalachian counties in Kentucky in a close race when Democrats in Virginia get blown out in Appalachia even if they’re winning big statewide?
Fun fact: The last time a Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia carried Wise County was nearly a quarter-century ago, when Mark Warner took 58.5% of the vote in 2001. Before that, you have to go back to Doug Wilder in 1989 to find a Democratic candidate for governor who won in Wise County.
In Virginia, the realignment of Southwest Virginia — and much of rural Virginia generally — into the Republican camp is just an accepted fact of political life. How can Beshear and Kentucky, a state that Virginians would generally regard as backwards, be so different? What lessons could Virginia Democrats draw from this — and Virginia Republicans learn to be wary of?
To answer these questions, I turned to J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Democrats, beware: You won’t like his answers.
The first is that Kentucky is a less urban state than Virginia (58.7% of Kentucky’s population lives in metro areas, 75.6% of Virginia’s does), so if Democrats are to have any chance of being competitive in the Bluegrass State, they have to pay attention to rural voters.
By contrast, Coleman says, Virginia Democrats don’t, and it shows.
“I think just showing up in a lot of these rural areas counts for something,” Coleman says. “It seems like in Virginia one of the criticisms of Democrats is they sometimes act as if they can just run up the score in Northern Virginia, we don’t need to win these other areas — that mentality isn’t good for reaching out to rural voters.” This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. Many statewide Democratic candidates rarely venture to Roanoke, and might make an obligatory “check the box” visit to Abingdon but don’t venture out into other parts of Southwest Virginia. It was once considered mandatory that Democratic candidates — and potential Democratic candidates — attended the traditional Labor Day parade and post-parade speechifying in Buena Vista. Now they’ve abandoned that for events in the urban crescent. There are certainly more voters — and more potential Democratic voters — in those places, but the signal that the Democrats’ absence in Buena Vista sends extends far beyond Glen Maury Park.
Second, Coleman says, Kentucky doesn’t have something equivalent to Northern Virginia, a massive metro area that votes overwhelmingly Democratic — and that sometimes seems so foreign to rural areas downstate. “In rural Virginia, there’s a lot of animosity toward Northern Virginia,” Coleman says. In Kentucky, “Louisville and Lexington aren’t the kind of beast that Northern Virginia is.” Once again, that forces Kentucky Democrats to pay more attention to rural areas — and the absence of a Northern Virginia equivalent in Kentucky gives a candidate like Beshear more room to maneuver. That brings us to Coleman’s third point:
Beshear cuts a more moderate figure than a Virginia Democrat running for statewide office could get away with. Mother Jones magazine reported this fall that Beshear studiously avoids talking about climate change. Instead, he has talked up an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. “In national politics, that’s something you see from the Republicans,” Coleman says. And not just in national politics; that’s the exact same phrase that Youngkin has used. “Beshear wasn’t seen as antagonistic to coal interests,” Coleman says. “In Virginia, we have a more liberal Democratic Party. I have a hard time seeing a Virginia Democrat in an election saying they’re for ‘all of the above,’ especially when one of the big players, especially in the primaries, has been Clean Virginia” — a pro-renewable energy group founded by Charlottesville multimillionaire Michael Bills. In this past election cycle, Bills was the single biggest political donor in the state, giving $12.5 million, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Put another way, Kentucky has a different political environment which both allows and encourages Democrats there to nominate more moderate candidates — and then requires them to pay attention to rural voters if they hope to win. Virginia has none of those things.
Beshear had a fourth thing going for him, Coleman says. Beshear was able to run as an incumbent, something that doesn’t happen in Virginia’s one-term environment. In 2019, Beshear had the great fortune of running against an unpopular Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin — and eked out a margin of 0.4 percentage points. Incumbency is almost always an asset (unless the incumbent is unpopular, of course), but Beshear was able to benefit from a tragedy. Remember the floods that roared through our Buchanan and Tazewell counties in July 2022? That storm was even worse on the Kentucky side of the line. No one died in Virginia; 45 people did in Kentucky.
Beshear got high marks for his handling of the response to both the floods in eastern Kentucky and the 2021 tornadoes that flattened entire towns in western Kentucky, Coleman says. Mother Jones says that in Kentucky the governor has been called the “consoler in chief.” Coleman says that governors who preside well over natural disasters often get an electoral boost in the affected areas — he cites Republican Pat McCrory who picked up numbers in some North Carolina counties hit by a hurricane and Democrat Jay Nixon who handled tornadoes in Missouri more than a decade ago.
“If you look at where he [Beshear] improved in eastern Kentucky, it lines up with the areas impacted by the floods,” Coleman says. Kentucky recorded flood deaths in six counties. In 2019, Beshear had won just two of them. This time, he won four, and his vote share improved in all of them. In Letcher County, Beshear’s vote share jumped from 44.9% in 2019 to 52.3% this year. In Perry County, his vote went from 44.5% to 55.6%. In Knott County, his vote went from 49.4% to 54.5%. In Breathitt County, his vote went from 50.2% to 61.2%. Interestingly, Beshear saw his vote share increase in the western counties ravaged by tornadoes, but not by as much as his share went up in the Appalachian counties. In Graves County in western Kentucky, home to the stricken town of Mayfield, his vote share went up from 32.9% to 36.5%. The political appreciation for Beshear’s disaster response was mostly an Appalachian phenomenon. In fact, the biggest vote swings in the state were in Appalachian counties — toward Beshear.
It’s fair to wonder whether race played a factor in Beshear’s increased vote in Appalachia — his opponent was Black. Coleman doesn’t think so. While every state has its own unique culture, racism seems to know no bounds. The Appalachian counties in Virginia have a demonstrated history of voting for Black candidates. In 1989, Wilder carried every locality in Virginia’s coal country with the exceptions of Scott and Tazewell. In 2013, E.W. Jackson carried coal country overwhelmingly in his unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. In 2021, Winsome Earle-Sears recorded her biggest vote share in Lee County — 87.5%. In Kentucky, Cameron ran strong in his 2019 victory for attorney general, so voters weren’t reluctant to vote for a Black candidate then. He took 58.9% in Letcher County that year. Voters just liked Beshear better for governor this time around.
What lessons should Virginia’s parties draw from Kentucky? For Republicans, it’s this: Their seemingly impregnable hold on Southwest Virginia could be vulnerable if Democrats were to nominate different candidates and run different campaigns. For Democrats, it’s this: The things required to appeal to Southwest Virginia would probably cost the party in Northern Virginia.