Have Democrats Lost Kentucky Permanently? Skip to content

Have Democrats Lost Kentucky Permanently?

8 min read

Not since the heyday of Henry Clay and the Whigs have the Democrats been in such dire straits in the Bluegrass State.

Kentucky has voted Republican in the last five presidential elections. Both of Kentucky’s U.S. senators are Republicans. So are five of its six House members.

The GOP controls the governorship. Republicans enjoy whopping margins in both houses of the General Assembly.

Most county judge-executives are Republicans, as pointed out by Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm political picnic in August. The majority leader, who is also the state’s longest-tenured senator, couldn’t resist reveling in the Democrats’ demise.

The five-term incumbent pointed to House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and to Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear, the only elected Democrats on stage as speakers.

“First time I came to Fancy Farm, on this side, there were governors, former governors, senators, former senators, representatives, state senators, and over on the Republican side it was me and a couple of county chairmen,” McConnell jabbed. “My, how times have changed, right?”

A Permanent Realignment?

Stephen Voss

But is the change eternal? “There’s no such thing as permanently realigned,” cautioned Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist.

James Clinger, a Murray State University political scientist, agreed. “I don’t believe in permanent realignments. I don’t believe in them in Kentucky or anywhere else.”

James Clinger

Clinger cited the pre-Civil War Whigs and their leader Clay, Kentucky’s most beloved politician ever. Hailing from Lexington, he was a speaker of the U.S. House, a U.S. senator, the Secretary of State and a three-time presidential candidate. Clay also helped broker a trio of compromises to save the Union and stave off civil war.

Under Clay’s guidance, Kentucky became one of the most Whiggish of states.

Kentucky went Whig in every presidential election between 1836 and 1852. Every governor from 1834 to 1851 was a Whig. The Whigs dominated the General Assembly; most Kentucky lawmakers in Washington were Whigs.

The national Whig party collapsed in 1854. Kentucky briefly flirted with the nativist Know-Nothings in the mid-1850s before the Democrats gained the upper hand shortly before the Civil War, which started in 1861.

The state mostly tilted toward the Democrats until the advent of McConnell, who, more than anybody else, started the GOP surge in the birth state of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. (Lincoln lost Kentucky in landslides in 1860—when he polled just 1,364 votes—and in 1864). McConnell won his first term in 1984.

“The orientation of a state can change very quickly if something changes economically or in terms of foreign policy,” said Voss. “The Republicans should not be expected to dominate Kentucky forever,” Clinger added.

Even so, the GOP has been cutting into the once overwhelming Democratic edge in registered voters. Through September, about 1.7 million Kentuckians are signed up as Democrats; about 1.4 million as Republicans. Almost 98,000 are registered as independents or as members of small parties.

Registered Democrats obviously are voting Republican in significant numbers. President Trump collected 62.5 percent of Kentucky ballots cast on Nov. 8. He carried all but two of Kentucky’s 120 counties: Fayette (Lexington) and Louisville (Jefferson.)

The Trump tsunami swept away a 53-47 Democratic edge in the Kentucky House; only 36 of 100 house members are Democrats. The GOP held its 27-11 majority in the Kentucky Senate.

The Way Back for KY Democrats

Ernest Yanarella, another UK political scientist, thinks the Democrats can rebound but only by “returning to bread-and-butter issues and a commitment to party reorganization down to the precinct level.”

[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]”KY Dems need to return to bread & butter issues and a commitment to reorganization down to the precinct level.”[/tweet_box]

Ernest Yanarella

Yanarella said a Democratic resurgence also depends to a large extent on how Republican Gov. Matt Bevin handles controversial issues, including public pensions, taxes, and healthcare.

Democrats think they can make political hay off Bevin’s apparent plan to shore up the state’s woefully underfunded public employee pension systems. He evidently wants to transition public employees from defined-benefit plans into 401(k)-type investment plans. It isn’t clear if the proposal will affect current employees or just new hires.

Critics say any such shift will drain more money from the state treasury and from retiree pockets. Many public school teachers, state government workers, and city employees, including police and firefighters, are angry over what Bevin seems to want.

Even so, Clinger said Bevin rode a wave “of deep-seated and anti-Democratic sentiment” into the governor’s mansion in 2015. Kentucky’s Republican right turn “is not just a Trump phenomenon,” according to the professor.

Also in 2015, Republicans wrested from the Democrats a pair of constitutional offices—auditor and treasurer—and held the agriculture commissioner’s post. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear, son of ex-Gov. Steve Beshear, survived the GOP tide.

Republicans came close to ousting the two Democrats, too, even though they were “well-known candidates who outspent them by huge margins,” Clinger said.

Clinger conceded that “some great scandal or idiosyncratic event” could derail the Republicans. “But I think the smart money would be [on] the GOP to hold on to most offices for quite a while.”

He argued that the Republicans would have taken the House ten or so years earlier “if it had not been for the [Gov. Ernie] Fletcher hiring scandal and some awkward campaigning by the [David] Williams-[Richie] Farmer ticket.”

Gov. Beshear, a Democrat, unseated Fletcher in 2007. He topped Williams in 2011.

Bevin is a tea-party tilting, born-again Christian cultural warrior. So are many Kentucky Republicans.

The Southern Protestant Bible Belt loops around the border state of Kentucky. Hence, Republicans from Bevin on down run full-bore, and usually successfully, on social and cultural issues. A Kentucky union leader calls them “the Three Gs—God, guns, and gays.”

Voss said that Kentuckians are less conservative on economic issues than they are on social and cultural issues. As long as the latter issues “are defining our national politics,” Kentucky “is going to be a very red, very conservative, state.”

On the other hand, he said, if the country “pivoted back toward more of an economic- or budget-oriented focus in its national politics, you’d expect Kentucky also to go back to the way it used to be just a couple of decades ago—which is a state that would be up for grabs.”

Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to carry Kentucky in a presidential election, pocketed the state enroute to victory in 1992 and 1996.  “It’s the economy, stupid” was his campaign mantra in his first bid for the White House.

Even so, winning back the state house and senate in 2018 or even 2020 would seem like mission impossible to all but the most optimistic Democrats. The GOP has had the senate since 2000. (The Democrats had ruled the house since 1921.)

So far, four, maybe five, house Democrats but only one Republican, aren’t seeking another term, according to one of the Democrats.

Those Democratic departures would seem to steepen the party’s comeback trail. Open seats are easier to flip, and the Republicans figure they can pocket all or most of the erstwhile Democratic holds in 2018.

New Blood, New Visions

But veteran lawmakers stepping aside “in the long run, can be great for the Democrats because it invites them to get new blood,” Voss said. “These politicians who are retiring or choosing not to run for reelection, represent an older politics. They were the Democratic party that used to succeed and can’t any more.”

“Having to find new blood to run with the Democratic label allows you to find people who are better able to win under the current circumstances—who fit the spirit of the time.”

Yanarella thinks the Kentucky Democratic party “badly needs young blood and innovative political leadership to revive it from its political torpor.”

But youthful blood isn’t always enough. He cited Adam Edelen’s unexpected defeat as state auditor in 2015.

Edelen, now 42, was viewed as a rising star in the party. More than a few Democrats still think he is.

But Edelen’s loss “was a clear signal that the political tide has turned to the Republican Party, joining virtually all of the Southern states in Republican-dominated state legislatures,” Yanarella said.  “Gov. Bevin has managed to join conservative policy initiatives with religious fundamentalism, which has been a potent brew across the South.”

Despite his defeat, Edelen is mentioned among Democrats who might challenge Bevin in 2019.

Meanwhile, Edelen and sports radio personality Matt Jones have started the New Kentucky Project. According to its website , the group “seeks to move Kentucky forward and modernize our state through a variety of different policy initiatives.”

Grimes and Beshear are also potential Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls a year from next month. “But each just barely won the last election,” Clinger said.

Yanarella said the state Democratic Party is at low ebb because it “has generally failed to innovate its policies on issues that touch the lives of most Kentuckians, especially those who have historically identified with the Democratic Party….Part of the New Deal coalition that served Democrats so well since the 1930s has been essentially given over to the Republicans who have put a right-wing populist twist to working class needs.”

Krystal Ball

Democratic strategist Krystal Ball of Louisville doesn’t disagree with Voss, Clinger, and Yanaralla’s state-of-the-party assessment, however grim.  “It seems fair enough and seems pretty right on to me,” added Ball, an MSNBC contributor and author of Reversing the Apocalypse: Hijacking the Democratic Party to Save the World .

In her book, Ball argued that the Democrats must return to their New Deal roots to overcome the “populist charlatan” Trump and to stave off a sequel to the president. She wrote that through his New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to forge “a historically rare, cross-racial working-class coalition that elected [him] to an unprecedented four terms.'”

Ball challenged the Democratic powers-that-be to not write off all Trump voters as irredeemable.  “Were there racists who voted for Donald Trump?” she asked in her book. “Absolutely. Sexists? Yep. Generalized bigots and trolls and the worst person who’s ever invaded the comments section? You’d better believe it. And those dark forces should be exposed and called out wherever they are found.”

She wrote that Trump “is…all of the of the awful things we said he was during the campaign. A racist, a sexist, an authoritarian, a liar, a con artist, a complete and utter fraud.”

But she warned that “Trump’s moral illegitimacy doesn’t render all of the concerns of his supporters illegitimate.” Ball counseled that “slapping the ‘racist’ label on every Trump voters is also just not accurate….There were people who were just so damn desperate and vulnerable that they decided to believe the promises of a professional huckster and con artist.”

After she moved to the Falls City last year, Ball started the People’s House Project to help Democrats retake the U.S. House of Representatives. Her group is targeting Republicans in Midwestern and Appalachian states like Kentucky and seeking Democrats to take them on.

Ball, who spoke at the recent Wendell Ford Democratic dinner in Louisville, agreed that the Republicans have succeeded in nationalizing state and local races to the detriment of Democrats in conservative and mostly rural states like Kentucky. “All politics is not local any more; all politics is national now.”

“Far too many have lost faith that the Democratic Party will truly fight for them while others have been uninspired by a vision that lacks clarity and boldness,” the People’s House website says. “We must win back the trust of these voters. To do so, we must support candidates who offer an alternative vision for the country based on working-class solidarity and respect for the dignity of every American.”


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