I know that it’s probably too early to start thinking about individual senate races in 2020, but what if I told you that it is possible that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could be beaten? Most people would probably assume that is because he is the most unpopular senator in his home state, with approval ratings at around -25. But that was the case before he ran for re-election in 2014, and he still won.
The reason McConnell could lose is because of someone named Matt Jones, who happens to be Kentucky’s favorite sports radio host. Jones is actively considering a challenge to the Senate Majority Leader, which would launch one of the most fascinating races of the season. Before you jump to conclusions about the fact that Jones is a sports radio host, there are some things you should know about how he doesn’t fit the mold.
Jones grew up in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a mountain town in the heart of Appalachian coal country. He went to Transylvania University and Duke Law School, where he graduated second in his class. In 2011, Jones launched his radio show and a sports blog that is rumored to draw more daily readers than the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. Then in 2015, he started a nightly TV show in Lexington, “Hey Kentucky!” where he holds court with the state’s most prominent politicos.
Placing Jones on the traditional left-right political spectrum will not be an easy task.
Jones is a liberal populist—an outspoken champion of worker’s rights, a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-wrestling NASCAR enthusiast—looking to recapture the Trump vote from Republicans in a state the president won by nearly 30 points in 2016…
When pressed, he identifies as a “Southern populist progressive,” wary of using the term “liberal” in his home state. He is a proponent of Obamacare and marijuana legalization, generally an advocate of free trade and lowering the corporate tax, bullish on union rights and a vocal opponent of corporate welfare. These stances almost universally find root not in party allegiance but in the effect on Kentucky’s working class, a mooring so deep that Jones says he would vote against his personal beliefs in the Senate—on coal, for instance—if he felt it was in the best interest of his constituents.
Most every Democrat will find items on those lists to both support and oppose. But it won’t just be Jones’s platform on the issues that poses a challenge to McConnell.
As Jonathan Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer and former chair of Kentucky’s Democratic Party, says, Kentucky has a working class, anti-establishment voter base, “and there’s nobody that symbolizes the insider establishment more than Mitch McConnell.”
And appealing to the working class happens to be where Jones excels. As a radio host, Jones has made a living taking aim at the people that he sees as Kentucky’s bullies, from Pitino to Bevin. “This is a guy who lives to annoy elites, This is a guy who lives to offend the haughty,” says Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s former state auditor and Jones’ New Kentucky Project co-founder. Jones says McConnell is the biggest bully of all, one who he alone has the platform, the policy expertise and the brazen confidence to take down…
“In a political world where the candidates seem to be really scripted, really elite and really disconnected from the lives of the people they want to serve, I think Matt is the opposite of all those things,” says Edelen. While Edelen acknowledges the difficulties of winning a statewide election as a Democrat in Kentucky, he says that with Jones, “the calculus changes”—that Jones forces Kentuckians to rethink party allegiances.
That profile on Matt Jones was written before candidates running in red states like Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, and Andrew Gillum challenged the traditional Democratic formula of scripted centrism by running on progressive positions combined with authenticity. While the new approach didn’t get any of them over the top, they all came much closer than Democrats have performed in the past, so it’s certainly worth a try in Kentucky.
Matt Jones says that he will make an announcement sometime this summer about whether he’ll run against McConnell in 2020. I don’t know if he’s taking requests, but if you know someone in Kentucky, it sure wouldn’t hurt to have them call Matt and encourage him to run. I suspect that if anyone can give the Majority Leader a run for his money, it will be Jones.