FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Tanya Torp had enough of the Kentucky Democratic Party when she saw one of the state's politicians, Alison Lundergan Grimes, holding a gun.
Grimes, the Democratic secretary of state, was challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014 when she released a TV ad showing her holding a shotgun at a shooting range in an attempt to combat McConnell's image of her as an out-of-touch liberal politician.
But it had the opposite effect for Torp, who has changed her party registration from Democratic to independent. "That's what the Democrat Party is in Kentucky right now," she said. "They are Republican lite."
Torp was one of six Kentuckians who met with former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Tuesday at a Frankfort coffee shop. The encounter came as part of Sanders' tour of Republican states — along with new Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez — in a bid to re-energize the party.
Sanders and Perez are seeking to jumpstart grassroots opposition to Republican President Donald Trump by focusing on such issues as raising the minimum wage and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.
"When we are clear about what our values are ... that's when we are at our best," Perez said.
But they could have a hard time in Kentucky, where Democrats once dominated state politics but have since lost the governor's mansion and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. In November, Trump won 118 of Kentucky's 120 counties, including Elliott County, which had never voted for a Republican presidential candidate in its 147-year history.
Sanders told reporters he did not come to Kentucky "to convince anybody," but said it was "absurd" that Kentucky's elected officials, including the Senate Majority Leader McConnell, would push so hard for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The act has resulted in more than 400,000 people getting health insurance through an expanded Medicaid program.
"I suspect that the Democratic Party here in Kentucky has not done the kind of job that it should have done," Sanders said. "It's an investment. If people are getting health care, it's an investment."
Most Kentucky Democrats have tried to distance themselves from the Affordable Care Act, mostly because of its association with former President Barack Obama. The exception has been former Gov. Steve Beshear, who embraced the law and delivered the Democratic response to Trump's speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this year.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said Kentucky can't afford to keep the Affordable Care Act, which will cost taxpayers an extra $257 million in the state's most recent spending plan.
"Kentuckians have roundly rejected the ultra-liberal, anti-jobs platform of coastal elites like Sanders and Perez," Kentucky Republican Party spokesman Tres Watson said.
Sanders has scheduled a rally Tuesday evening in Louisville.