Kentucky’s “Democratic Gibraltar” has crumbled.

Jackson Purchase voters have defeated the region’s last two Democratic lawmakers.

When the General Assembly convenes in January, a pair of GOP senators and five representatives will comprise the contingent from westernmost Kentucky.

Not that long ago, Ballard, Calloway, Carlisle, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Marshall, and McCracken County Republicans were about as rare as May blizzards.

Democrats joked that the Purchase GOP would fit inside a phone booth.

But by 2017, Republicans held the region’s First and Second Senate District seats and the First, Second and Fifth District House seats. The Third and Sixth House districts turned Republican red on Tuesday.

“The first time I came to Fancy Farm [in 1984], 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,” Sen. Mitch McConnell jabbed at last year’s political picnic.

“My, how times have changed, right?”

The GOP crowd whooped and hollered. The Democrats booed or kept glumly quiet.

The Purchase was historically Democratic – but no longer

Historically, the Purchase was so loyal to the party of Tom Jefferson and Andy Jackson (for whom the region is named), that it was dubbed “the Democratic Gibraltar” and, sometimes, “the Gibraltar of Democracy.”

In every presidential election from 1824 until 1972, Democrats pocketed the Purchase. Democrats also blew out the opposition in races for Congress, governor and almost all local offices.

After the Nixon “heresy” 46 Novembers ago, the region returned to the Democratic fold in 1976 and again in 1980, 1988, 1992 and 1996. Republican presidential candidates have run the table since.

Two Novembers back, Donald Trump piled up 72.5 percent of the vote in the eight counties, 10 points higher than his statewide total.

Now the Purchase routinely votes Republican in U.S. House and Senate races. McConnell, from Louisville, boasts of the region’s fealty to him.

Around the turn of the 21st century, the Purchase started voting Republican down ballot. The body politic began sending Republicans to Frankfort and putting Republicans in local courthouses. After Tuesday, GOP county officials outnumber Democrats.

Marshall County as an example

Marshall County typifies the long, slow evolution of Purchase politics.

In the presidential election of 1856, Marshall County gave the victor, Democrat James Buchanan, 90 percent of its vote. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, didn’t get a single county vote.

Two Novembers ago, the current GOP president collected nearly 65 percent of Marshall’s vote.

From 1824 to 2016, an unbroken string of Democrats represented Marshall County in the state House.

On Tuesday, voters elected a Republican state representative, GOP sheriff, coroner and two county commissioners and reelected a county judge-executive.

Only one incumbent Democratic commissioner survived the red wave. The county attorney managed another term after switching to independent.

A political scientist weighs in

Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist, said the Purchase has traveled the political path of many white-majority sections of the rural South.

“They have gone from being conservative Democratic territory, where the voters had dual partisanship—they were loyal to Republicans at the national level but equally loyal to the Democrats at the lower level—to realigning behind the Republican Party,” he said.

Democratic activist Daniel Hurt knows what Voss means by realignment. He’s the party chair in Livingston County, which is across the Tennessee River from Marshall County.

Like Marshall, Livingston was a Democratic stronghold for decades. Most locals “grabbed the rooster’s tail,” meaning they voted the straight Democratic ticket.

Same as Marshall, Livingston voted Republican in congressional and state legislative races. Voters reelected five incumbent GOP county officers.

“What killed us was straight ticket Republican balloting,” said Hurt, who managed unsuccessful campaigns for state Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, and Democratic House hopeful Abigail Barnes, also a Livingston countian.

He said county voters cast close to 800 straight Republican ballots compared to about 500 for the whole Democratic ticket.

Meanwhile, Kentucky mostly has faded from blue to red, except for “liberal Louisville” and Lexington, both Democratic island in a mainly Republican sea.

The GOP took the state Senate in 2000, the governorship in 2015, and the House two years ago.

Can it change back?

But has the Purchase—and most of the rest of the Bluegrass State—turned Republican Red for eternity? Can the “Gibraltar” be rebuilt?

“Nothing in American politics is permanent,” Voss cautioned. “An economic crisis could tip the balance and get people thinking about more bread-and-butter, or what we used to call lunch pail [Democratic] issues.

One thing the Democrats can do is just basically keep doing what they’re doing—offer a reasonable opposition and know that at some point the interest of voters will shift and their time will come again.”

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Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.