In 1968, just before announcing his presidential campaign that tragically ended with his assassination, Bobby Kennedy visited six counties in Kentucky and made an impression so memorable that voters in that region of Appalachia remained loyal Democrats for decades after.
But all that changed in the 2016 election. Those same counties voted overwhelmingly in support of Donald Trump. How could Kennedy country become Trump country?
On the 50th anniversary of RFK’s visit to Appalachia, a fascinating USA Today article by Rick Hampson explores how such a shift took place over the course of 48 years, disproving the prediction of RFK’s aide Peter Edelman that “these people would be Democrats their whole lives, and their children’s lives.’’
As Hampson recounts, Kennedy toured 200 miles of eastern Kentucky over the course of two days, stopping in a one-room schoolhouse in Barwick where he spoke with each student, at a courthouse in Whitesburg, at a high school, in a miner’s front yard.
The tour drew epic public attention. To this day, there is an online project dedicated to recreating it. And Kennedy seemed resolved to work to alleviate their poverty, not just through welfare but though jobs. “I love these people. It’s terrible to have all this in a country as affluent as ours,” he said.
Policy and philosophy-wise, Trump could not have been more different from Kennedy. And yet, as Hampson found, lifelong Democrats who were the children of Democrats found themselves switching:
Tyler Ward, a 32-year-old lawyer whose father, a Democrat, is the chief executive of Letcher County, and Colin Fultz, 46, an entrepreneur whose father was elected magistrate as a Democrat.
Ward’s grandfather was a “yellow dog’’ Democrat (he’d vote for a yellow dog before a Republican) who always said that Democrats care about people and Republicans care about money. “But now it seems the roles have been reversed,’’ Ward says: Republicans care about people, like coal miners; Democrats care about intangibles, like climate change.
There’s bipartisan nostalgia for RFK. “I wish I’d have been here to meet him,’’ Fultz says. “He’d have been a great president. But he was an old-school Democrat. Democrats today aren’t like RFK and JFK.’’
Despite their differences, Hampson sees three key, underlooked similarities between the two:
Celebrity, authenticity, and empathy – empathy specifically for the people of Eastern Kentucky.
As Dee Davis, President of the Center for Rural Strategies, notes in the article’s accompanying video, despite the fact that the region is now home to just 6,000 miners where once there were 66,000, that miner identity is still a crucial part of the way people in that area of Kentucky see themselves. Trump hit all the right notes for the people in this region with his entreaties to miners and promises of clean coal.
In 2016, he carried each of those six long-term Democratic counties with 70-80% of the vote.
Are you or do you know a Democrat who voted Republican in the 2016 election? Share why in the comment section,