Sometime around 8 PM last Sunday, my iPhone began to blow up with similar, seemingly out-of-the-blue texts from several of the state’s leading Democrats (and a few Republicans, too):
Is Matt Jones really running for Congress?
Turns out this was no coincidence. The Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman had just posted an exclusive report that the national party’s Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was furiously recruiting the Kentucky Sports Radio chieftain to challenge two-term GOP Representative Andy Barr for Kentucky’s sixth district congressional seat in 2016. And the Big Blue Nation’s master communicator/promoter had done such a good job of keeping this a secret, that even his own recovering politician Sunday night columnist was caught completely by surprise.
After listening to his brief explanation on his radio show, reading incisive interviews by Youngman and Insider Louisville‘s Joe Sonka, and having a couple of private conversations with the King of All Kentucky Media himself, I’ve come to understand that Jones’ interest is real. Perhaps more significantly, the dozens of political insiders who’ve continued to burn up my phone — c’mon guys, I’ve got a day job — pretty much all agree: If the state’s biggest radio personality chooses to run, he has a very legitimate chance of winning. Indeed, unless Governor Steve Beshear un-retires (will never happen) or UK Coach John Calipari jumps into the arena (yeah, right), Jones is by far the strongest — and perhaps the only — Democrat who could unseat the respected, well-funded and scandal-free incumbent Barr.
Elections 101: While my mom, a former UK political science professor, has written a few of the definitive books on Kentucky politics; for the short attention span KSR set, I will boil down the patented recipe for a successful modern political campaign into a simple math equation:
Name Recognition + Campaign Funding = #winning
OK, I exaggerate. A little. Candidate quality, as well as voter partisanship, ideology and mood matter. But the era in which an unknown, idealistic candidate can win major office based on shoe leather, rhetorical precision and the power of her platform expired sometime around the invention of the television. Despite the rising influence of social media, the critical campaign battleground continues to be the 30-second TV commercials that we all profess to hate, but which are proven time and again to determine elections. And it’s extraordinarily helpful for a new candidate to be able to build on a foundation of familiarity to help prevent his opponent from defining him in a series of attack ads.
Political watchers understand that Matt Jones is that rare first-timer who is both well-known and shares a deep personal connection with target voters. As I’ve discussed often in this column, the Bluegrass State’s devotion to its Cats borders on religious fervor; and while Matt Jones may not be our High Priest, he’s certainly one of the most esteemed and influential evangelists.
It’s clear from my phone conversations this week that local and national Democrats are anxious to rain down donations on Jones should he decide to throw his ball cap into the ring. Plus, with an enormous Web-based following, Matt would be one of the very few Congressional candidates who could raise buckets of cash online. By all traditional standards, Matt instantly would be positioned as a credible, legitimate challenger.
The Trump Card: Of course, each day as we mire through the Summer of Trump, we understand that our country’s political standards are anything but traditional. Indeed, The Donald’s yoooooge lead in the national polls is a clear indication that the public is so sick to death of politicians-as-usual that they’re willing to put up with the billionaire’s bombastic bigotry and cynical faux-populism.
To be clear, if he decides to run, Matt Jones would surely run a much more substantive campaign and express a much more thoughtful and compassionate worldview. But what Jones and Trump share is a politically-incorrect, tell-it-like-it-is sense of authenticity — an Ã¼ber-refreshing contrast with the typical bet-hedging, over-managed, sound-bite-scripted pols — that would attract voters who might disagree with them on any number of policy positions.
Jones’ potential opponent would be the perfect foil. Andy Barr is an attractive, intelligent, well-spoken gentleman whose smarts, collegial style and party loyalty have propelled him to be a rising conservative star in DC. He looks, acts and talks like a Congressman. Accordingly, with Congressional approval hovering somewhere between cockroaches and the Kardashians in national polls, Jones’ everyman, non-political persona could attract the legion of Central Kentuckians who despise Washington and aspire to turn our paralyzed and polarized system upside down.
For reference, recall the 2010 GOP Senate primary between Rand Paul and former Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Grayson (full disclosure: a good friend) represented everything we good-government types desire in our elected officials: integrity, bi-partisanship, a commitment to public service. That’s why the Republican Establishment, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, openly embraced him. But it was that very embrace that helped cause Grayson to be routed by a little-known ophthalmologist, and helped launch the anti-government Tea Party movement nationwide.
If there is any quality that unites Kentuckians of all political flavors, it’s a resentment toward elites. Heck, that’s why we joined the Confederacy after the Civil War. And that’s a forceful wave that anti-politician Matt Jones could ride into Congress.
Demographics and Timing: In one of the great ironies of modern politics, if we went back to the bad old days when only white men could vote, the Grand Old Party that freed the slaves and helped secure women the franchise would win nearly every election today by a landslide. Matt could turn those numbers on their head. I’m not privy to the cross tabs of his radio show’s ratings, but I’m quite confident that his listenership skews heavily into traditional Republican demographics. While Matt certainly won’t win over all of his listeners who don’t share his left-of-center political leanings, the profound, emotional shared bond over Kentucky sports — and the deep respect listeners have developed for Jones’ intellect, integrity and blunt candor — might provide Teflon cover from the inevitable anti-liberal, anti-Obama attack ads, and sway enough conservative fans who would never otherwise vote Democratic.
Consider as well another core KSR audience that traditionally does not vote in large numbers: the college-age and young adult set. While a Jones candidacy isn’t likely to fundamentally change Millennial voting patterns, a small percentage increase could make the difference in a tight election. And with the presidency on the ballot in 2016, a disproportionate number of young people will be at the polls already.
Speaking of presidential politics, since 2000 at least, association with the national ticket has tended to crush Democratic hopes in the Bluegrass State. But at least at this moment, the GOP nationally is in far greater disunity and disarray; and the Clintons, despite constant accusations of ethical impropriety (such as with this season’s email scandal), have always performed well in Kentucky. Further, with Rand Paul’s fortunes sinking precipitously, and potential challenger State Auditor Adam Edelen garnering national attention for his electoral viability and charismatic oratory, the U.S. Senate race likely won’t provide the same drag for down ticket Democrats as it has in recent elections. This may be the right year for a Democrat like Jones to seize back the congressional seat that has switched parties regularly over the past several decades.
He Gets It: In the end, no matter how good a candidate looks on paper or on the stump, if she’s unwilling to take the steps necessary to wage a successful campaign, she ain’t gonna win. Matt understands the discipline required and the personal sacrifices necessary to succeed and proceed in elective politics. He knows that most of his campaign life will find him stuck in a windowless room dialing for dollars and groveling for grassroots support. And most importantly, he recognizes that if he wins, serving as a freshman in the House minority is no glamorous life, and that an equally brutal reelection campaign will commence within weeks of his being sworn in.
For all of those reasons (as well as the fact that he already has plenty of fame and an established public platform), Matt Jones might decide not to run for Congress. But if he does take the plunge, it will be for all the right reasons: That the small town boy from the mountains adores his home state and wants to play a meaningful role in its revival. That the son of a longtime Bell County prosecutor understands the sanctity and significance of public service. That the voracious student of public policy realizes that fixing a desperately broken political system takes personal and professional risk, as well as a giant leap of faith away from the comforts of a satisfying and enjoyable lifestyle.
And that’s why if Matt Jones does decide to run for Congress, there will be plenty of Central Kentuckians like me who will be proud to support him.