How Kentucky’s Poorest Counties Voted In 2020

Sen. Bernie Sanders Said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Needed To Understand His Constituents.

The Senate held a fiery debate Tuesday on a plan passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and endorsed by outgoing President Donald Trump to increase direct payments to Americans, still struggling to earn income during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The amendment to the bill Trump signed last weekend would increase payments from $600 per person to $2,000 per person. The proposal, however, was thwarted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who was blasted on the Senate floor by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), a supporter of the $2k payments.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) speaks on Tuesday, Dec. 29 on the Senate floor. During the speech he called out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) for blocking a proposal to give Americans $2,000 in stimulus money.

In his speech, Sanders pointed out that ten of the poorest counties in America are in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky and the need for money right now is greatest in those communities.

“Let me just make it clear for the Majority Leader that 10 out of the poorest 25 counties in the United States of America are located in Kentucky,” he said. “So maybe my colleague, the Majority Leader, might want to get on the phone and start talking to working families in Kentucky and find out how they feel about the need for immediate help in terms of a $2,000 check for adults.”

Progressives applauded Sanders’ speech, which, justifiably, painted McConnell as out of touch with working families in his state.

But is he?

McConnell was just reelected on November 3. He defeated Democrat Amy McGrath by 19 points, his largest win since 2002. How did he do in those ten poor counties Sanders was talking about? Well, he won all off them. In fact, it was first time he ever won Wolfe and Elliott counties, which were once Democratic strongholds. Trump also won all the counties, by larger margins.

Thought some of these counties did once vote Democratic, others – such as Owlsey, the poorest of the counties – have never voted Democratic for president and having voted Democratic for Senate since 1992. The best a Democrat has ever done for president in Kentucky’s poorest county was Bill Clinton in 1996, when we received 37 percent of the vote. Owsley County even voted for Alf Landon over Franklin D. Roosevelt by an 83-15 margin, the third highest margin of victory for Landon in the country that year. (Jackson County, also on this list, gave Landon the biggest win).

Owsley County is the poorest county in the country; more than half of the county residents’ personal income comes from government benefits. The median household income in Owsley County is $19.351, less than a third of the national average ($61,937). And it has never voted for a Democrat for president. Ever

CountyMedian Household IncomeMcConnell%McGrath%Trump%Biden%
Nov. 3, 2020 Election Results in Kentucky’s ten poorest counties for U.S. Senate and President

Why, you might ask? Well it isn’t entirely clear, but some of these counties are historically Republican going back to the Civil War, where they were strongholds of abolitionist and Union sympathisers. With generation after generation of the same families remaining in these areas, they just never wavered from their party.

Now, progressives who supported Sanders will be quick to suggest that Democrats would win these areas if they ran on economically populist and progressive ideas, such as Medicare For All or stronger labor unions. Sanders did win all but two of these countries in 2016, but the 2020 primaries showed something different. Sanders lost all ten of the counties in 2016 and even finished behind Uncommitted in the two poorest counties – Owsley and Breathitt. (caveat: Kentucky’s primary was two months after he dropped out of the race). Also, remember, some of these counties didn’t even vote for FDR or Lyndon Johnson.

In the 2020 U.S. Senate primary, McGrath faced Charles Booker, a Kentucky state representative from Louisville, who ran on a Bernie Sanders-type campaign with the support of progressive groups like Our Revolution. How did he do? He lost, getting under a third of the vote in a Democratic primary in all but one county. In fact, Booker did nearly twice as well in Kentucky’s richest county Oldham (46%) than he did in the poorest (25%)

Wolfe 49%27%24%
Results of the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Progressive candidate Charles Booker lost them all to eventual nominee Amy McGrath, despite endorsements from progressive organisations

Is it no wonder McConnell feels no pain in rejecting $2,000 checks? He has a secure Senate seat for another six years and won all of the poorest counties in his state by wide margins. For whatever reason, voters in these counties rejected the Democratic candidate and stuck with him, and even Democratic voters in these counties rejected the more progressive candidate when awarded the option.

Sen. Sanders is right that McConnell has turned his back on working class Americans by denying them extra money in stimulus that even his own party’s president has called for, but it’s not surprising he did it and that he isn’t worried about his own prospects. He won Kentucky’s working class voters, by a fairly large margin – CNN’s exit polls say he beat McGrath 55-39 among those who make less than $100,000 a year – and many, if not most, working class Democrats in the state are not enticed by a progressive option. Some of these voters have been red for generations, even going back to when progressive believe Democrats “fought for working class ideals.”

He is not concerned about losing them now.


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