RICHLAND, Ky. — Several months after losing her state legislative seat representing a district outside of Lexington in Madison County, Rita Smart still feels the pinch of the loss.
The former Democratic member of the Kentucky House of Representatives is sitting in the parlor of the beautifully appointed bed and breakfast, The Bennett House, that she owns and runs with her husband. She says: "It was tough. I lost by 76 votes." Her voice trailed off at the mention of the remarkably close totals.
By all accounts, she was a competent legislator. She is a small business owner and has previously spent three decades working for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
She is polite, circumspect and bewildered. "I just cannot understand how I lost," she said.
In truth, she didn't — her party did. The Democratic Party brand has suffered broadly in the middle of the country in the last few years, largely on the backs of its pull left under the presidency of Barack Obama. While progressivism fit well for Democrats in urban areas, it fell flat and was widely rejected in places like Madison County.
It is not that voters liked or loved Republicans or found them more virtuous; it is that they found Democrats less aligned with their values, more likely to look down their nose at them and not at all interested in listening to their plights.
Republicans at least made it OK to be in a church pew every Sunday, own a gun for protection and hunting, and not share all of their money with everyone else.
Kentucky Republicans were handed a bucket of ice water last fall when they won the state House in a landslide that fit in nicely with their previous wins in the governor's office and the majority in the state Senate.
The last time Republicans have held the majority in the Kentucky state House was in 1921. Before the Democrats lost it last fall, it was the last lawmaking chamber in the South still controlled by a Democratic majority.
Smart wasn't the only one to lose her seat. The speaker of the Kentucky House lost, along with 15 other incumbent Democrats. This was an honest-to-goodness wave election in this state, preceded by wave elections in 2010 and 2014 that placed Republican majorities in state legislative bodies across the country, as well as in the U.S. House and Senate. Democrats have lost over 1,100 legislative seats since 2009.
That is a lot of voter angst toward one party. The question is when will the Democrats be ready to learn from it? The answer is unclear. Activists in the Party seem more than happy to keep going left, but do they go at their own peril? They seem to believe that Hillary Clinton was rejected because she was not left enough, ignoring the fact that most of the middle of the country where the election was won and lost is pretty moderate.
Smart's loss to Republican C. Wesley Morgan last year was not about her not representing her state and her district well; it was about the image the national party projects, and voters in the middle of the country have been rejecting that for nearly a decade.
The Democrats currently lack the ability to win back power because their concentration of power is located in 94 counties across the country, according to an analysis by Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of The Cook Political Report.
If the Democrats were to branch out and employ a message and language that suit voters in Madison County, representatives like Smart would still be working in the state legislature — and likely continuing to do a good job.
They still haven't found their center nearly one year after Donald Trump stunned most Democrats. If they find it, Republican seats will start to willow away. If not, the Republican Party will still chip away at seats like Smart's in every state across the country.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.