“It’s the economy stupid,” James Carville famously admonished when he managed Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign in 1992.
Clinton carried Kentucky that year and again in 1996, when he was reelected. But Republican presidential hopefuls have won the Bluegrass State every election since.
Guns, abortion, and Trumpism
“There are two issues in Kentucky: gun control and abortion,” said veteran journalist Bill Straub. “Economic issues aren’t going to get it done [for Democrats] in Kentucky.”
Donald Trump pandered on guns and abortion, but added racism, sexism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia, and religious bigotry to his appeal to white voters. He carried every Kentucky county save urban Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington) both times he ran.
“Trump gave [whites] permission to voice their prejudices,” said Straub, a Kentucky Journalism Hall of Famer who was Frankfort bureau chief for The Kentucky Post for 11 years before becoming a White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.
These days, it seems that only in urban areas can Democrats prevail without pandering on the social issues. Retiring Congressman John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat, sports a red “F” lapel pin signifying his NRA rating on gun issues. In almost all rural counties, Republicans and Democratic office-seekers covet an “A” from the NRA.
Most rural Kentucky Democrats are more conservative than national Democrats or Louisville and Lexington Democrats. Many are virtually indistinguishable from Republicans on the issues of guns and abortion. Many, too, distance themselves from “liberal Democrats in Washington.” They often call themselves “Kentucky Democrats” or “conservative Democrats.”
Most of them still lose to Republicans anyway. “If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat,” President Harry Truman famously observed in 1952.
You can’t win if you don’t run
Straub, who writes an opinion column for the Northern Kentucky Tribune online, isn’t optimistic about a Democratic rebound in Kentucky any time soon. “If you're 50 years old and own an armory full of guns and oppose abortion, you’re not going to change. But first of all, Democrats cannot take rural Kentucky back unless they put up candidates.”
In 40 House races — all in rural or mostly rural districts — Democrats declined to file for this year’s May 17 primary. (State and county party officials, House Democrats, and Oakland, Calif.-based Movement Labs teamed up to try to recruit candidates in all 120 counties.)
Evangelical means Republican
Rural voters, especially conservative white, evangelical Protestants, have boosted the GOP to supermajorities in the Kentucky Senate (30-8) and House (78-25). Only two of the eight Democratic senators live beyond Louisville and Lexington. Democrats from the two cities occupy 19 House seats. Two more also represent urban Covington and Newport, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
“According to new analysis from Pew Research center, ‘evangelical’ doesn’t mean born-again anymore; it means Republican,” Anthea Butler, an MSNBC opinion columnist, wrote last September. “Of course, evangelicals have embraced the Republican party since the late 1970s, but, per the analysis, more white Americans adopted the evangelical label between 2016 and 2020, years that include former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns and his time in the White House.”
White, conservative evangelical pastors might not flat-out tell their flocks to vote Republican. But from the pulpit, many parrot the party line on the social issues. “You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat” and “You can’t be a Christian and a liberal,” evangelicals have been known to claim in rural parts of Kentucky from Jordan to Jenkins.
The CRT straw man
Besides their old standbys, incumbent GOP lawmakers this fall will doubtless tout their support for a quartet of anti-Critical Race Theory bills their party is pushing in the current session of the General Assembly. (GOP lawmakers are backing similar bills in several other states.)
Never mind that CRT, a scholarly study of systemic racism in law and society, is taught in law schools and some graduate schools, not K-12 schools. Republicans stick the “CRT” label on almost any school program that meaningfully promotes diversity and inclusion.
The GOP has successfully tapped into the politics of white resentment, especially in largely rural states like Kentucky, which is 87.5 percent white. “A lot of white folks — not all white folks — look nationally and see that folks like Latinos and African Americans are starting to become more influential and are demanding their rights,” Straub said. “White folks, to a large degree, are not comfortable with that.”
Largely by pushing the social issues and appealing via dog-whistle or bullhorn politics to white racial and ethnic resentment, the GOP has succeeded in making Democratic office holders at any level an endangered species all across largely white rural America. “One of the poisonous legacies of Donald Trump’s presidency has been to expand the boundaries of expressible prejudice,” Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post. “Through the explicit practice of White-identity politics, Trump has obviated the need for code words and dog whistles.”
What about the pocketbook?
Many working- and middle-class Kentuckians, rural and urban, used to believe they were better-off financially under Democrats, and they voted accordingly.
Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt handily carried Kentucky all four times he ran between 1932 and 1944. FDR’s New Deal program for fighting the Depression employed thousands of jobless Kentuckians on public works projects and included Social Security for the elderly and disabled. The New Deal also featured rural electrification and federal farm programs that helped bring back prosperity to Kentucky and elsewhere in rural America.
“Rural people don’t vote on economic issues as much as they once did,” Straub said. “The ‘moral issues’ have become a higher priority to these folks than economic issues. Republicans in a rural state like Kentucky have almost a free run on the ‘moral issues.’ I don’t see how Democrats can change that.”
Meanwhile, in Frankfort, the GOP supermajorities continue to pass bills that benefit the rich and powerful few at the expense of everybody else, including rural Kentuckians. “This session brings forward the central truth of Republican rule: The issue of abortion has allowed them to hold onto voters who are going to be hurt by the rest of the GOP agenda,” opinion columnist Linda Blackford wrote in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “In particular, some high-priority ones, like House Bill 4, would curtail unemployment benefits. House Bill 7 cuts benefits and House Bill 8 will eventually phase out the income tax. This will greatly help rich people, and when the hole from losing that revenue stream stays open, it will greatly hurt people who depend on government services or still attend public schools.”
The depression of the 1930s was caused by Republican “trickle-down economics,” a combination of hefty tax breaks for the wealthy and large businesses, and regulatory relief, all designed to keep profits up, wages down, and unions at bay. The worst economic downturns since the depression came under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom resurrected “trickle down.”
Added Straub: “People are different now. People really don’t listen to facts much anymore. They go by what their gut tells them most of the time, and right now they see the ‘moral issues’ trumping economic issues.
“But now if you ask people in Kentucky, ‘Who do you favor on economic issues, Democrats or Republicans?’ they’ll almost always say Republicans even though it’s proven that the economy crashed under Republicans.”
Gen Y to the rescue
Many Kentuckians in their teens and twenties don’t share their elders’ reflexive opposition to abortion and gun control. They spurn racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, and religious bigotry. Many, too, support progressive economic policies that are consumer-, union-, and environmentally-friendly.
More than a few Gen Y voters don't think “socialism” is a dirty word. “But even if you're 35 and voting Republican, you’re not likely to change,” Straub said.
Straub said any Democratic resurgence largely rests with the state’s young people. “The Democrats need to be going after high school seniors and those in college – getting them organized and involved.”
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