What it will take to win: grassroots organizing, deep connections | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

What it will take to win: grassroots organizing, deep connections

When KFTC members gathered on Zoom November 21 to elect officers and reflect on this year, they considered what it will take to achieve the Kentucky we envision.

KFTC Vice Chair Alan Smith led a panel discussion about this year’s election and what it means for the political landscape in Kentucky.

“A lot of us were expecting Kentucky’s turnout to be way better than this, and it wasn’t,” said Smith. 

In a year when Kentuckians got to vote early and by mail, voter turnout in Kentucky was around 60 percent, compared to 70 percent nationally. Eastern Kentucky in particular saw lower voter turnout. 

Comparing the last presidential election year to this one, Kentucky’s voter turnout was 59.1 percent in 2016 and 60.3 percent in 2020.

Democrats gained eight Kentucky House seats in 2018, then lost five in 2020. This year Republicans ran unopposed in far more districts than Democrats, and Donald Trump got 62 percent of the vote in Kentucky. 

Panelists acknowledged the challenges of voter engagement during a pandemic and the need for deeper conversations and relationship building.

Alicia Hurle, former KFTC Deputy Organizing Director for Democracy who now serves as co-director of Commonwealth Alliance Voter Engagement and Kentucky Civic Engagement Table, said getting back to our roots as organizers will be the key to shifting the landscape. 

“A lot of this for me is about how we’ve really tried to build this electoral machine as progressive organizations, and I think what’s kind of been lost in that is that we are grassroots organizers first and foremost and we know how to speak to people and we know that our issues are actually the ones that are winning and that can win the narrative battle. And we kind of have to get back to those roots.” 

Hurle pointed to candidate Charles Booker, who ran against Amy McGrath for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in the 2020 primary. Booker generated excitement and won more counties than Biden or McGrath by talking with people about issues that matter to all of us, like healthcare.

Clark Williams, chair of Commonwealth Alliance for Voter Engagement and chair of the People’s Campaign, said organizing is building relationships. “The onus is on us not to just rely on a particular candidate having those relationships, but we’ve got to … build those relationships where people are looking to be pointed to the issues and how they affect them and what are organizations looking at and who are we endorsing and why. We’ve got to become that relationship they need even more so than the candidate.”

Hurle suggested the voter turnout map might have more to tell us than the red/blue map. “What if we flipped from saying we’re expecting people to perform red or blue to we need to be in those areas where folks are disengaged, where nobody’s talking to them, where nobody’s reaching out to them and that be the focus of our electoral work?”

Joy Girgis, who worked as a KFTC Voter Empowerment Organizer in Northern Kentucky and talked with many voters, said she heard from several folks that they didn’t plan to vote because they didn’t think their vote mattered. But by framing the conversation around issues, she was able to help folks connect the dots between voting and issues that affect their lives.

Lisa Garrison, a KFTC member who ran for Corbin City Commission and did voter engagement work in this election, said she heard from some voters that they didn’t want to vote for the lesser of two evils. “You want to validate that, and it’s a hard objection to overcome,” Garrison said, “but you have to be honest and help them understand the value of their vote no matter what. And I agree wholeheartedly that framing this around issues is the better way to go about it because that opens the door to building relationships.”

Panelists noted the importance of deeper conversations, which were harder to achieve this year when deep canvassing wasn’t an option. Smith said studies have shown that the longer conversations of deep canvassing are “stickier” – they stay with folks longer and impact their outlook.

Dana Beasley Brown, a former KFTC chairperson who won re-election to the Bowling Green City Commission, said she won her race in 2018 by going door to door and talking with thousands of people in her community. This year, she made the difficult choice to keep folks safe and do phone banking, texting, mailers and digital outreach instead. For a candidate at the bottom of the ballot who doesn’t have unlimited funds, talking with voters is critical. 

“We have to have an army of progressive folks just like us who are willing to do the really hard thing of having awkward conversations with strangers about what we care about and what we believe in and why it matters,” Beasley Brown said. We also need training to build folks’ skills around phone banking and deep canvassing, as well as training for candidates on how to build power beyond our base and reach folks who aren’t voting, she said. 

Panelists also noted that white supremacy did well at the polls this year in Kentucky.

“White supremacy is always on the ballot, and the majority of white people vote in favor when given the choice,” Hurle said. “It’s important to talk with voters about racial justice because we all suffer under white supremacy – regardless of the color of our skin. When we don’t fill that narrative with a different vision, the right is going to do that, and they do it really well.” 

Smith added, “We’ve got to refine our message, we’ve got to learn to listen and we’ve got to talk to white folks, and part of that has got to be about race.”

Beasley Brown said we need to remove the “distortion filters” that the right has used to control the narrative. And we need to equip more people of color to run at every level.

KFTC Chairperson Cassia Herron wrapped up the conversation by reminding folks: “We are the leaders that we’re looking for, and we are the leaders that we deserve.”