When the occasionally wild and always wooly subject of Kentucky politics is broached, it’s advisable to avoid the usual history professors and government insiders who pose as experts and head directly toward a psychiatrist with analytical powers greater than Freud. It’s the only way anyone is ever going to understand the schizophrenic nature of the state’s own unique brand of electioneering.
For years, the Bluegrass was considered a typical Southern Democratic state operated by larger-than-life characters such as the inimitable A.B. “Happy” Chandler or strongmen like Earle Clements. Kentucky didn’t carry the albatross of racism as prominently around its neck as much as soul mates such as Tennessee and South Carolina, but its political sensitivities always appeared to be Southern fried.
But a closer inspection of election results over the years tells a different tale, at least when it comes to comparing the electorate’s approach with federal and state elections.
On the local level, Kentucky has been—and to a great extent remains—a Democratic state. As of Aug. 23, the Kentucky State Board of Elections showed registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 520,000, representing about 55 percent of the statewide electorate. Since 1924, Democrats have held the state’s most powerful position—the governorship—for a remarkable 72 years. Republicans have controlled the first floor of the State Capitol for a mere 16 years during that run, usually only as a result of dissention within Democratic ranks.
It took 32 years after Louie Nunn abandoned the governor’s chair in 1971 for another Republican, Ernie Fletcher, to capture the office. After four lackluster years of Fletcherism, Kentucky voters invited him to leave in 2007, apparently deciding years of Democratic rule maybe weren’t so bad after all. His successor, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, became only the second person in recent history to earn re-election.
While Republicans now control the state Senate—again as a result of some curious infighting among Democrats a few years back—the party of Martha Layne Collins and Bert T. Combs continues to hold a lock on the House of Representatives, a possession it has never forfeited.
But Democratic dominance in state government is only a part of the story. There have been 22 presidential elections since 1924. In that span, Republicans have taken Kentucky 12 times, compared with 10 successful efforts by Democrats. Since 1952, only two Democratic presidential candidates—Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976—have received more than 50 percent of the state’s popular vote.
In recent years, on the rare occasions when Kentucky voters sided with Democratic presidential candidates, the decision has come with a decided drawl. Beginning in 1964, when Johnson of Texas received 64 percent of the state’s vote against Republican Barry Goldwater, the Bluegrass has supported only Democrats hailing from the old Confederacy—Carter of Georgia in 1976 and Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 and 1996.
The numbers for the U.S. Senate are equally striking. The seat currently held by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville has been in GOP hands for 44 of the last 56 years. The GOP hold on the state’s other Senate seat is nearly as impressive—the spot held by Sen. Rand Paul of Bowling Green has been in Republican hands for 31 years. Former Sen. Wendell Ford, an Owensboro Democrat and perhaps Kentucky’s most revered political figure during the latter half of the 20th century, maintained the seat now held by Paul for 24 years, until his retirement in 1999, when Republican Jim Bunning of Fort Thomas took the seat and held it for 12 years. You have to go back nearly 60 years, to 1954, to find another Democrat elected to the seat—former Vice President Alben Barkley, another honored figure, from Paducah.
“It’s always been that way,” said Mike Ward, a Louisville Democrat who served a single term representing the 3rd Congressional District from 1995 to 1997. “It’s been since 1998 that we had a Democrat in the Senate—1984 for the other seat. It’s not unprecedented; they used to just go back and forth. In the Senate you could always find a Republican—a John Sherman Cooper, a Thruston Morton, a Marlow Cook. But we keep having Democratic governors.”
It is, by any stretch, a Jekyll and Hyde political scorecard—with the role of Jekyll and the role of Hyde determined by where you stand on the political spectrum.
Just how this bipolar view of politics developed is up for debate. About the only factor folks on opposing sides of the aisle agree on is that Kentucky voters lean to the right, acknowledged Rick Robinson, a self-described “Goldwater Republican” from Fort Mitchell and one-time aide to Bunning.
“The state legislature is far more conservative than the national Democratic Party tends to be,” said Robinson, an attorney and successful author of political thrillers. “They [Kentucky Democrats] often try to run from the president. When Al Gore was running for president in 2000, [former Democratic congressman] Ken Lucas [of Florence] wouldn’t stand up on the greeting stand with him when he came in to campaign.”
Kentucky Democrats on the national scene, in fact, usually are of the “Blue Dog” variety who tend to snub fellow members associated with the party’s liberal wing. Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler remained in the 6th Congressional District this year rather than traveling to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, attempting to avoid any connection between himself and President Barack Obama.
“Wendell [Ford] was strong in the ‘anybody but McGovern’ movement when he was governor,” said Ward, referring to the campaign of one-time Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. A liberal, McGovern was overwhelmed by President Richard Nixon. “Ford was always respectful, but he still kept a distance.”
Still, such a dichotomy requires a significant amount of ticket splitting, with Democrats readily crossing over to support Republicans who openly boast of being the true conservative party.
This paradox would seem to have a lot to do with Kentucky’s culture and character. While demographers may crunch the numbers and conclude that My Old Kentucky Home is now a two-story condo on a bustling city street with a Starbucks around the corner, many cling to the image of a grassy estate with a large brick house, white picket fence, burley stretching toward the sun and somebody playing a banjo or a dulcimer.
Al Cross, the renowned former political writer for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, asserted that despite increased urbanization, Kentucky remains a provincial state, a factor reflected in its politics.
“In other places, people might identify themselves by their city or their state,” said Cross, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “Here, we identify ourselves by what county we come from, and there are 120 of them. Many live in a very small business and cultural circle. We’re not as provincial as we used to be, but it’s still a pretty provincial place. Even though we are an urban state in population, we’re still rural in character. A lot of those urban places are county seats in rural areas. And it may be that many are recent migrants going from rural to urban.”
Those folks, Cross said, don’t appreciate the national Democratic Party’s shift to a more urban constituency, which comes across as slick, and away from the countryside and rural values.
But locally, it’s a different story.
“A plurality of Kentuckians still say they identify with the Democratic Party,” Cross said. “When you identify with something, it gets down to the people you know. You might say, ‘I know Judge-Executive John Coyle in Woodford County, and he’s a good guy. He’s my kind of Democrat.’ People are identifying with their county and the local culture.”
That continued Democratic allegiance is a legacy of the Civil War. Kentucky existed as a border state during the conflict, and the state legislature invited in Union forces led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to oust Confederate invaders to maintain some semblance of neutrality.
But the federal government’s postwar Reconstruction policies, ramrodded by Republicans, left the Bluegrass with a bitter taste and drove much of the state to the Democrats, following the lead of the Solid South. The state refused to ratify the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which contains the equal protection clause.
It was during the readjustment period that a majority of Kentuckians turned to the Democrats. A watered-down version of that inheritance continues to this day.
The concept of local identity is supported by former University of Kentucky political science professor Penny Miller in her seminal work, Kentucky Politics and Government, published in 1994.
“In most of the state, Kentucky presents the classic example of the traditionalistic political culture, allowing an active role for government, but primarily as keeper of the old social order and maintainer of the status quo,” Miller wrote. “Kentucky politics does not foster major political and social change.”
“Political affairs,” Miller wrote, “remain chiefly in the hands of established elites, whose members often claim the right to govern through family ties or social position. A persistent feature of Kentucky’s traditionalistic political culture is a highly personalistic, rather than ideological, brand of politics.”
And that “personalistic” approach on the local level plays into the hands of Democrats, explaining, perhaps, why Steve Beshear, the son of a preacher from tiny Dawson Springs who speaks like an extra hanging around Floyd’s Barber Shop in Andy of Mayberry may be considered “my kind of Democrat” by a lot of Kentuckians. Beshear won a second term with a little more than 55 percent of the vote.
It also goes a long way toward explaining why President Barack Hussein Obama has almost no chance of winning Kentucky in the presidential election this fall. Voters may not be in love with the Republican trying to take the job, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a candidate who probably thinks Pappy Van Winkle is that old guy from New York who slept for 20 years, but there’s no way they’re going to side with Obama.
Even the most cursory review of the Kentucky electorate would readily reveal that the Bluegrass State is essentially a theme park for Obama detractors. An Obama victory here on Nov. 6 would, by comparison, make the ’69 Miracle Mets’ World Series victory look like the surest thing since the sun rising in the East. The only thing left to determine is if the incumbent president can beat the record established by McGovern in 1972, when the senator from South Dakota received a paltry 34.8 percent of the Kentucky vote—the worst showing for a major party candidate in the past 100 years save for President William Howard Taft, a Republican, in 1912 when he was engaged in a three-way race against Teddy Roosevelt and the eventual winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Obama received only 41.15 percent of the Kentucky vote against the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in 2008, and he’s certainly no more popular with the electorate now than he was four years ago. In this year’s May Democratic primary, Obama attracted 58 percent of the vote, which sounds fine until it’s recalled that he didn’t face any opposition. Democratic voters pledged themselves as uncommitted in 67 of the state’s 120 counties.
The most recent Gallup poll placed the president’s job approval among Kentuckians at 36.5 percent and dropping. Only seven states maintain Obama is doing a worse job as president than does Kentucky.
It would be simplistic, and inaccurate, to blame Obama’s unpopularity on his skin color alone, although that might certainly affect some voters. More to the point, he isn’t particularly attractive to many of the state’s voting blocs.
A report issued last November by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, titled “The Path to 270: Demographics Versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election,” by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, said Obama won four years ago thanks to the support of, among others, “communities of color.” Meanwhile, Republicans this year “continue to hold strong advantages when the voting electorate is older, more conservative, and less diverse than the overall population.”
Kentucky is certainly conservative, its median age is above the national average, and it is one of the nation’s most homogeneous states. A survey by Main Street, an online magazine, found only four states less diverse than the Bluegrass based on 2009 data from the American Community Survey collected by the U.S. Census.
According to the most recent census data, African Americans comprise only 7.8 percent of the state’s total population, well short of the 13.1 percent national average, leaving Obama with a relatively small voting bloc to reap. Blacks are his most ardent supporters—more than 90 percent of African-American voters supported him nationwide in 2008. And while the census showed a growth in Hispanics, another substantial pro-Obama bloc, they make up only 3.2 percent of Kentucky’s population, substantially behind the 16.7 percent nationwide total.
That leaves a lot of white folks—88.9 percent, according to 2011 Census estimates, well above the national average of 78.1 percent. A large segment of the nation’s white population has failed to come to terms with America’s first African-American president, whether it be in Kentucky or the 49 other states. In Kentucky, it’s just more obvious because there are so many.
Obama actually polls relatively well among college-educated whites but, once again, there’s a dearth of them in Kentucky. The census found that 20 percent of Kentucky residents 25 years of age or older hold college degrees, ranking the state 46th in that category. The percentage of residents who failed to graduate high school is almost as high, 19.7 percent, the nation’s fifth-highest.
That is a lot of white, blue-collar workers, a segment that, it’s fair to say, passionately dislikes President Obama and his policies. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released in July, Obama drew the support of just 29 percent of non-college white men—a death knell in Kentucky.
“Primarily, Obama is urban, he’s liberal and he’s a stranger,” Cross said.
Robinson emphasized that it doesn’t matter that Obama is unpopular with Republicans in Kentucky.
“He’s unpopular with Democrats,” Robinson said. “Past presidents have had problems with re-election in their time frames, sure, but nowhere near this one.”
Some, Robinson said, will try to tie Obama’s unpopularity to racism, “but it goes far deeper than that.”
“There are a lot of places that should have been a stronghold, like Pike County,” he said. “Coal still carries a lot of weight in this state. These are union Democrats, and they voted for uncommitted over Obama in the primary. I think that shows contempt far deeper than you can just attribute to racism.”
By Bill Straub