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Kentucky Midterm House Race: 6th Congressional District Issues


I'm Steve Inskeep with a live audience at Broomwagon Bikes and Coffee in Lexington, Ky. Folks, would you take a moment to thank our hosts here?


INSKEEP: We are amid hanging bikes and bike parts and a sign for WUKY, our member station here in Lexington. We are in the 6th Congressional District, where a tightly contested race will help decide control of the House. President Trump campaigns in the district this weekend. And those who will be in the audience include Alan Halsey, editor of a rural newspaper called the Swift Creek Courier.

ALAN HALSEY: I was actually a Trump voter. I was. And I may vote for him again. I'm going to Richmond to see him this weekend.

INSKEEP: Oh, are you really?

HALSEY: Maybe I won't get shot.

INSKEEP: He leans conservative, though he also says he prefers divided government, checks and balances, which makes his congressional vote tricky. This is a time of political ferment in Kentucky. Teachers staged protests this year against a Republican governor's effort to cut teacher pensions. And those waving signs in the state Capitol included Audrey Long (ph).

Did those protests cause some teachers to become more politically active than they would've been?

AUDREY LONG: Oh, heck yes. Oh, heck yes. If I remember correctly, it's more teachers running for state office this year than ever before.

INSKEEP: Those are some of the voters we've been meeting. And now we'll talk over what we have found with Emily Beaulieu, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, and Al Cross, journalism professor at the same university. Good morning, guys.

AL CROSS: Morning.

EMILY BEAULIEU: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for joining us early. Al Cross, how hard-fought is this district between Andy Barr, the incumbent, and Amy McGrath, the Democrat?

CROSS: It couldn't be any harder fought. I mean, this is almost like a Senate race in terms of the money that's being spent, the stakes that both parties see in it. It's just one for the books.

INSKEEP: Money being spent? How much money are we talking about here?

CROSS: Well, Amy McGrath expects to have $8 million, and - total, including the primary.

INSKEEP: Eight million dollars is an amount that used to be huge for a Senate race just a few years ago.

CROSS: Yes. Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. And Andy Barr also millions.

CROSS: Andy Barr will have a comparable amount. And plus, there's all the outside spending.

INSKEEP: Emily Beaulieu, do you see that money being spent if you turn on the television or you drive around this district?

BEAULIEU: You absolutely do. In fact, you hear it on the radio.

INSKEEP: Bitter, bitter radio ads, as well as television ads? Television - I've seen tons of television ads within bars and restaurants and so forth.

CROSS: And online ads, too. You can't ignore that.

INSKEEP: Absolutely not. Let's drill down on some of the divisions in this state. And here are a couple more voters. One of them we spoke with is Lori Graham (ph). She's in Campton, Ky., in Wolfe County, a rural county. She is the manager of a newly expanded gym. And she's a newcomer to the state. She favors President Trump. And she gave a lot of reasons why she favors his attitude. She likes the economy. And she also says she doesn't understand why people are talking about racial divisions in this country. Let's listen.

LORI GRAHAM: I played college basketball. I went to majority-black schools. I mean, I have dated a black guy at one point in my life. I am not racist by any means. And I don't never saw anything - nothing - like, I went to a majority-black college, was one of the only white girls on the team. And we all got along - everybody got along great.

INSKEEP: Is that kind of a part of the reason you support President Trump? Because he kind of, as you see it, calls BS on all this. And you kind of agree with that.

GRAHAM: Kind of, yeah. I just - I feel like - I don't know - I feel like a lot of people have made issues into things that aren't really issues.

INSKEEP: Now, Emily Beaulieu, when we interview African-Americans, we hear a radically different perspective there.


INSKEEP: How deep are the racial divisions in this day?

BEAULIEU: Well, I think what's more important to recognize about this state is how overwhelmingly white it is, right? So it's about 84 percent white. In this way that Kentucky sits at the intersection of a lot of divides in the country, it looks more like a Midwestern state than its neighbors to the south or the east. And so to the extent that there are racial divisions, I think what you see more acutely is that feeling of marginalization from the African-American and Latino communities because they're small.

INSKEEP: Although there are communities here. Al Cross, we ate in a Mexican restaurant with Central American waiters in Wolfe County, Ky. The teacher we heard from a moment ago is teaching English as a second language to immigrants. This is becoming a more diverse state, isn't it?

CROSS: It's becoming more diverse, but it's slow. You know, the African-American population is single digits. So is the Hispanic population. And eastern Kentucky, part of which is in this district, is one of the whitest places in the United States.

INSKEEP: How real, then, is the anxiety over race? Are you surprised at all to go to a very, very white county, as we did, and hear multiple people say I don't understand what this Black Lives Matter thing is all about? And they're actually actively bothered by it.

BEAULIEU: It's - to me, this is again a reflection of Donald Trump's emphasis - right? - that in that style of emphasizing conflict and threat, often that's been racialized, right? Quite often it's addressed toward immigrants and the threat posed by immigrants. But there's definitely a racialized element to that.

INSKEEP: Al Cross.

CROSS: In this state, the racial element has been bad for Democrats. You know, the election of Barack Obama was a historic event, but it was bad for the Democratic brand in Kentucky. If you look at the exit polls from 2008, we have about a 15 percent acknowledged racist electorate.

INSKEEP: People say, I am racist?

CROSS: People say - no, they said that race was a reason...

INSKEEP: Oh, was a factor...

CROSS: A reason for my vote. And yeah, there would've been some African-Americans in that but very few because we've only got 7 1/2 percent black population.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear from a person who identifies as mixed race and lives in the historically black neighborhood of Lexington on the east end. April Taylor (ph) is her name. She's a community activist on the east end. We met her outside a farmers market that she has helped to get going near a historic theater there. So she's very active, politically active, has strong opinions. And yet she says she doesn't always vote. Let's listen.

Does your vote matter in 2018 in this congressional election?

APRIL TAYLOR: I'm honestly not completely convinced that it does. For so many people who are the working poor - right? - people who are working two and three jobs just trying to make ends meet, people who may or may not have transportation, people who may or may not be able to get the time off of work. There have been times in my life where it was just not feasible to vote, particularly when it felt like it may or may not matter.

INSKEEP: What do each of you think about as you hear that voice?

BEAULIEU: I think about the feelings we've heard across a number of these interviews of marginalization of different flavors, be it economic, be it racial, be it ideological.

INSKEEP: Meaning that that isolation, that feeling of isolation is real for a lot of people.


INSKEEP: Al Cross, you get the last word here.

CROSS: I think voters need to remember that the choice is binary. And binary choice has gradually moved us through a continuum of history. But each election is a binary choice. And I hope people don't stay home on either side.

INSKEEP: OK. Al Cross and Emily Beaulieu, thanks very much to both of you. Guitarist Bruce Lewis is going to take us out.

BRUCE LEWIS: (Playing guitar). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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