If there's a war between California and Kentucky, forget it: We all lose

Interstate showdown between Liberal Coastal Elites and the Red State Religious could haunt the Democrats in 2020

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published July 1, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

Matt Bevin (Getty/Scott Olson)
Matt Bevin (Getty/Scott Olson)

Earlier this week, the mayors of Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, wrote letters to California’s attorney general to ask that their cities be exempt from the California law that bans state-funded travel to states that allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression. That category now includes the Commonwealth of Kentucky, after its so-called Charlie Brown bill was signed into law this spring. Among other allowances for religious expression in public schools, the new law could permit student groups to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

Understandably, Greg Fischer and Jim Gray, the Democratic mayors of the state's two major cities — both of which have had laws on the books prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations since 1999 — don’t want their LGBT-friendly urban havens to get lumped in with the rest of the Bluegrass State. Kentucky has an undeniably inconsistent track record on LGBT rights, and while as of the 2016 elections, Republicans now control both the state Senate and House as well as the executive branch, the bill in question passed with significant bipartisan support.

Call it a case of the Blue Dot Blues. Kentucky is the home of Kim Davis, after all, the county clerk who famously refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision. That high court case also included a suit against Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban, a law that the state's then-attorney general, Democrat Jack Conway, refused to defend in court. The fact that Kim Davis was a Democrat, and took her stand in Morehead, a small mountain town that also has the same kind of anti-discrimination law protecting LGBT folks in Louisville and Lexington, pretty much gathers many of Kentucky’s most frustrating contradictions under one headline.

Obviously all of Kentucky, Fischer and Gray are arguing, is not hostile, legally or otherwise, to LGBT residents and visitors. (Lexington’s Gray, in fact, is an out and proud gay man, as well as a pro-business Democrat who ran against Sen. Rand Paul in his last reelection race.) They’re not wrong — local fairness laws are also on the books in Covington, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati; in Frankfort, the state capital; in the college towns Danville and Midway; and in the tiny town of Vicco, made famous by “The Colbert Report.”

You can’t blame Fischer and Gray for trying; this is the last thing any city’s business and tourism communities want or need, over a law that passed on the back of a controversial elementary school production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” You can’t blame California, either; not wanting to spend taxpayer dollars in states that protect discrimination in any form is surely the Golden State's prerogative. The idea that there will be financial consequences for state-sanctioned discrimination was heard loud and clear in Indiana — just ask Mike Pence — and again in North Carolina last year.

But I’d like to suggest that there could be unintended political consequences for California’s action, too, that could ripple well beyond the borders of either state.

In this economic battle of California vs. Kentucky, California stands to lose very little. But the symbolic culture war of Coastal Elites vs. White Christian Heartland helped carry Trump all the way into the White House in 2016, and anyone paying attention to Kentucky shouldn’t have been surprised.

In 2015, political outsider Matt Bevin, who the year before had challenged Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat in the Republican primary and lost, became only the third Republican to win the governor’s race since the end of World War II. His victory came as a shock — the polls had the aforementioned Jack Conway, a wonkish lawyer and Democratic Party-anointed successor, winning by a comfortable margin. Conway might have sued the EPA once, but at least he never gave a campaign speech at a cock-fighting rally. (Yes, that's frowned upon, even in Kentucky.) He was seen as the obvious and safe choice. As it turns out, Conway failed to inspire any but the most diehard to come out and vote.

Bevin, a wealthy and charismatic political outsider, ran on dismantling Obamacare in Kentucky: killing off the state’s medical exchange, which was a national model, and gutting the expanded Medicaid program, which now covers nearly a third of the state's residents — including, presumably, many Bevin voters themselves.

Since taking office, Bevin has waged a war on the state’s press, favoring his own social media feeds over returning reporters's calls, picking fights with reporters, and blocking hundreds of his own constituents from his Twitter feed. His use of executive orders has raised ethics concerns and earned him a reputation for authoritarianism.

Sound familiar?

Democrats shouldn’t be surprised if and when Matt Bevin sets his sights on the White House — and they should definitely not underestimate his fluency in stoking the cultural “anxieties” that Trump exploited to win in 2016. See his office's sarcastic response to California's action, which could not strike a more different tone from Fischer’s and Gray’s pleas for understanding:

"It is fascinating that the very same West Coast liberals who rail against the President’s executive order, that protects our nation from foreign terrorists, have now contrived their own travel ban aimed at punishing states who don’t fall in lockstep with their far-left political ideology."

California has the right and the obligation to look out for its own people first, and the travel ban is one way the state can tend to its taxpayers’ values. As I said, economic consequences for anti-LGBT laws should not be a surprise at this point. As of press time, two conventions — headquartered in Chicago, actually — have pulled out of Louisville in the wake of the announcement, at a projected loss of about $2 million in economic impact to the city. But neither should it come as a surprise to the left that while the right has no ideological leg to stand on when it comes to private corporations' pulling their business — that’s just the free market, y'all — the same penalties leveled by another state's government will be, to say the least, the opposite of persuasive.

California’s travel ban will be read by many conservatives as the Smug Coastal Political Elite scolding residents of flyover states for being stupid, backward bigots (dare I say "deplorable"?) and they will react yet again by voting with their middle fingers: “Let me fulfill — nay, exceed! — your low expectations!” I wouldn't be surprised if Matt Bevin positioned himself as one of the breakout stars of that particular brand of “resistance,” and if he does, he won't only be Kentucky's problem.

If you’re wondering whether a second thin-skinned authoritarian Northern family business-owning millionaire has a shot at the White House, consider that Bevin combines all of the smarmy piety of a Mike Pence, sans the personal scruples, with the iron fist of a Donald Trump minus the nonconsensual palmful of pussy. Steves Miller and Bannon have got nothing on Matt Bevin when it comes to delivering American carnage to the base.

Nobody seems to agree whether Mark Twain actually said, “When the end of the world comes I want to be in Kentucky, because everything there happens 20 years after it happens anywhere else,” but we might want to retire that phrase now. Keep an eye on Matt Bevin, DNC. There will be no plausible reason — no whiff of pee-tape, no golf-panted goldbricking luxury mini-breaks — that might make swing voters or moderate Republicans align with you against this guy.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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