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Democrat Karen Berg Wins Special Election in McConnell's Backyard

Dr. Karen Berg Paints a “Red” State Senate Seat “Blue” in “Moscow Mitch’s” Backyard—Congratulations! July 15, 2020

Most of us are paying close attention to the presidential, congressional, Senate races, and the latest Supreme Court rulings. We must not, however, forget that political change often comes from the ground up. National trends may sometimes be predicted from local races, particularly, special elections. On 6/30/2020, Kentucky reported the results of its 6/23/2020 primary elections. It was determined that Amy McGrath had edged out Charles Booker in the Democratic primary by a 2.7% margin (nytimes.com, 6/30/2020). The election results had been delayed by the coronarvirus pandemic and the large number of mail-in ballots (Sonka, courier-journal.com, 6/30/20). In 11/2020, McGrath will face 78-year old Senate Majority Leader, Mitch, “I could care less about Russian election manipulation” McConnell (R-KY), aka “Moscow Mitch.” McConnell is running for his 7th term (116th Cong. At Your Fingertips). On the same day that the McGrath’s primary win was reported, Democrat Dr. Karen Berg won a special election to KY’s 26th state Senate District (SD). She clobbered her GOP opponent Bill Ferko by a 14% margin (Sonka, courier-journal.com, 6/30/20). This 26th SD special election was held because GOP longtime incumbent State Senator Ernie Harris had retired this spring after serving there for 25 years. Berg became the first Democrat to flip a seat in KY’s GOP-controlled Senate since 2010 (wlky.com, Vanderhoff, kentucky.com/news/politics). Let’s view this contest.

The “Bluegrass” 26th SD that Dr. Karen Berg won runs from Crescent Hill through portions of northeastern Jefferson County, suburban area of Louisville. The 26th SD additionally includes all of Oldham County (wlky.com, AP). The suburban Louisville area is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by 3rd Congressional District progressive John Yarmouth, KY’s sole Democrat in that body. Cong. Yarmouth also represents the city of Louisville itself, KY’s largest city. Oldham County is represented in the House by hard-right conservative 4th Congressional District Congressman Thomas Massie (Cohen & Cook 2020 Political Almanac). Oldham County, upriver from Louisville, has some of KY’s oldest homes and is the state’s most affluent county (Cohen & Cook 2020). Politically, Oldham County is more conservative, while the 26th SD’s Jefferson County suburbs have heavily trended Democratic in recent years (Sonka, courierjournal.com, 6/30/20). In 2016, Donald won the 26th SD by 12 points (See dlcc.org, 7/05/20).

Born in Louisville and raised in KY, Karen Berg, the daughter of the late Dr. Harold and Pearl Berg, received a B.S. in Political Science from the University of KY in 1983, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. In 1987, she received her M.D. degree from the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine. For over 30 years, she has been a practicing physician in the field of diagnostic radiology. Although she went into medicine, Dr. Berg had always been interested in politics. She had initially thought about going to law school and had worked for Legal Aid as a summer intern while an undergraduate (kyemergeamerica.org, jewishlouisville.org, Chottiner, 8/23/18).

In 2018, Dr. Berg lost her first race for the KY SD 26th to long-time incumbent Ernie Harris by just 3,101 votes (See ballotpedia.org/Kentucky State Senate District 26). After GOP State Senator Harris’ recent retirement, Dr. Berg ran for this seat in the 6/23/2020 special election. Semi-retired Dr. Berg believes in contributing to the community that has done so much for her and her family. She is a lifelong resident of the district and lives in a home with her husband that her parents built more than 60 years ago. Dr. Berg believes that health care is a right and campaigned on using her medical experience to ensure that health care is more accessible for all Kentuckians. She wants to improve access to healthcare and lower prescription drug costs. As an assistant professor, Dr. Berg will fight to ensure public schools will get the funding they need (dlcc.org, 6/23/20, karenforkentucky.com). She is pro-choice and for sensible gun control (jewishlouisville.org).

Dr. Berg’s special election opponent, Bill Ferko, was born and raised in southeastern Wisconsin. As a teenager, Ferko worked in his family’s grocery store, washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant, and went door-to-door selling Fuller Brush cleaning products to save for a college education. Ferko graduated from the University of Wisconsin Parkside while working as a bank teller. After earning an undergraduate degree in Business Management, Ferko began his career in finance with Case IH, a subsidiary of Tenneco, Inc., that manufactures farm and construction equipment. While working, Ferko earned his MBA from the University of WI Parkside and his CPA certificate from the University of Illinois. Ferko has been a resident of KY’s Oldham County for 22 years (Ferko For Senate). He is on the board of directors of Sypris Solutions, a Louisville-based company that manufactures and supplies electronics for the aerospace and defense industry. Ferko owns a horse farm and works as an instructor of equine finance at the University of Louisville. Former hard-right GOP Gov. Matt Bevin appointed Ferko to serve on the KY Horse Commission after he replaced most of its members in 2016 (wfpl.org, Barton, 6/16/20). Bevin was defeated by Democrat Andy Beshear in 11/2019. Ferko calls himself “pro-life and deeply against all forms of abortion.” He states, “Our Second Amendment right to gun ownership is a part of this lifestyle and I will fight for our inalienable rights.” On health care, he says we should speak to doctors about it and push for lowering its costs. He is vague on any real solutions to this key issue and does not forcefully push for making health care a key right (ballotready.org).

As was previously stated, Democrat Dr. Karen Berg handily defeated GOPer Bill Ferko in the 6/23/2020 special election by a 14% margin, 57%-43%. Ferko picked up 53% of the vote in the more conservative Oldham County, where he lives. However, Dr. Berg received nearly twice as many votes as “Team Red” Ferko in the suburbs of Jefferson County, the area outside Louisville that has heavily gone Democratic in recent years. In her campaign ads, Dr. Berg leaned on her support of Dem. Gov. Andy Beshear. Berg stated she would work with Gov. Beshear to improve access to affordable health care (Sonka, courier-journal.com, 6/30/20). Berg noted that “a perfect storm” helped her become the first Democrat to flip a seat in KY’s GOP-controlled State Senate since 2010. A KY Democratic Party spokesman said, “suburban, urban, and rural voters are ready for leaders in Frankfort (KY’s capital) who want to help Gov. Beshear address Kentucky’s challenges (wlky.com, Vanderhoff, 7/01/20).” KY Dem. Party Chairman Ben Self called Berg’s victory “a clear sign that Kentucky voters are tired of the divisiveness of the Republican Party of Kentucky (courier-journal.com, 6/30/20).” Massive turnout in Jefferson County because of the U.S. Senate Democratic primary between Charles Booker, a Louisville resident, and Amy McGrath helped Berg’s race (See wlky.com, Vanderhoff). Nearly three times as many Democrats as Republicans voted in Jefferson County. Berg acknowledged that the Booker-McGrath contest aided her. Both Dem. Gov. Beshear’s and GOP Sec. of State Michael Adams’ executive orders allowing no-excuse absentee voting by mail for the first time in KY because of COVID-19 certainly increased voter turnout (See courier-journal.com, Sonka, 6/30/20). Berg stated that she had laid the foundation for her 6/2020 special election win with her unsuccessful run against then incumbent GOP State Senator Harris in 11/ 2018. In that race, less than two years ago, Berg won 26,254 votes compared to Harris’ 29, 625. In that contest, Berg had knocked on over 20,000 doors. Her experience in that previous race helped her to “get up and running very, very quickly.” This time, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Berg’s campaign made 50,000 phone calls instead of going door-to-door. Berg added that her district, which includes the affluent eastern suburbs of Jefferson County and Oldham County, is undergoing demographic change that worked in her favor. Translation: many suburban women and newcomers are tired of Donald and Mitch McConnell’s obstructive party. Being a doctor as well as a cancer survivor in this time of a massive pandemic did not hurt Berg. Berg believes that many voters were simply looking for someone who will engage them. Berg called getting voters to know you, finding out what matters to them, and what they need from you, the “single most important thing you can do (See Vanderhoff, wlky.com, 7/01/20, karenforkentucky.com).”

Dr. Berg’s win brings diversity to the Bluegrass State. KY is part of the fundamentalist Protestant Bible Belt. In that region, some of the first questions people often ask are “what church you belong to,” and whether “you accept Jesus.” Berg is Jewish and proudly identifies herself as such (the only way to deal with anti-Semitic fringe bigots). Berg’s daughter, Rachael Pass, is in graduate school at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish denomination, in New York City (kyemergeamerica.org). Upon taking office, Berg will become the only Jewish member of the KY state legislature. Berg credited her faith in “driving me to be compassionate, respectful and help people in every way I can (jta.org, 7/06/20).” Yes, a few people have asked Berg, during her political races, whether she “took Jesus as her personal lord and savior,” but in the end, the “religious” issue was irrelevant. Berg did not win because the small KY Jewish community voted for her. She won because non-Jews were willing to listen to her and thought she would be the better state senator (jta.org, 7/06/20, jewishlouisville.org, 8/23/18), the way it should be for every religious group in America. Under our Constitution, as Catholic JFK often stated during his 1960 presidential race, there is “no religious test for office (See U.S. Const. Art. VI).”

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) President Jessica Post, who heads the key group that aids Democrats in winning state races, stated that Berg’s win, “sends a message to Republicans that Democrats are energized and ready to win all across the country this year—even in Mitch McConnell’s backyard.” However, despite Berg picking up a state senate seat, “Team Red” still has a supermajority in the KY State Senate, holding 28 seats to the Democrats 10. In the KY House, GOPers maintain a 62-38 supermajority. Supermajorities allow the KY GOP legislative chambers to easily override any vetoes by Dem. Gov. Andy Beshear (See Sonka, courier-journal, 6/30/20). And despite some encouraging polls, Dem. Sen. nominee Amy McGrath faces an uphill battle in “Red” KY against Mitch McConnell. Democrats last won KY’s presidential vote in 1996. In 2016, Trump took KY by 30 points (Cohen & Cook 2020). GOPers have dismissed Dr. Berg’s special election win as a “fluke” because of the massive turnout triggered by the McGrath-Booker Dem. Senate primary (Vanderhoff, wlky.com). Bet on GOPers targeting Dr. Berg’s seat when she runs for re-election. Yes, Louisville, initially a pre-Civil War anti-slavery Republican area surrounded by secessionist sympathizers, has now turned strongly Democratic, the present-day party of civil rights. Louisville is, currently, no fan of Trump or McConnell, although McConnell initially started his political career by winning election in 1977 as judge-executive in Jefferson County (See Cohen & Cook 2020 Political Almanac).

Even though Dr. Berg’s victory does not change the KY legislative landscape, as former Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson noted, “a win is a win.” Wins add up. Since Donald’s 2016 win, Democrats, with Berg’s victory, have now flipped at least 452 state legislative seats from “Red” to “Blue.” They are now only 30 more seats away from toppling eight GOP majorities in states like PA, MI, and NC, ones that Donald took in 2016, but where many voters have now soured on him (See dlcc.org, 6/11/20 &7/15/20). In 2020 and beyond, we must make high Democratic turnout in KY and everywhere else no “fluke.” Turnout is everything. Again, congratulations/Mazel Tov, Dr. Berg!

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