Kentucky defies any easy label of “red state” or “blue state.” The commonwealth is a place that was once solidly Democratic at both the state and federal levels. But now it’s common for parts of our listening area to send moderate and conservative Democrats to the General Assembly, while voting for extremely conservative candidates for U.S. House, Senate, and President.
If you discuss politics with someone in Kentucky—and we’re talking a real hardcore political junkie here-it’s an issue that’s bound to come up eventually. In many parts of the region voters who are registered Democrats often cast ballots for politicians in federal races who are anything BUT Democrat.
The Bowling Green-Warren County area is a great example of this voting pattern.
Understanding the Present By Looking at the Past
Bowling Green is home to Rep. Jody Richards, a Democrat who served as Kentucky House Speaker longer than anyone in state history. Warren County is also home to U.S. Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party champion who is believed to be strongly considering a future run for the White House.
So what’s behind all of this?
“I think you have to go back and look at the history,” says Patsy Sloan, a Democrat who served as Bowling Green Mayor from 1987-1991, and was also the second Congressional District co-chair for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Presidential campaign. “Kentucky has always been a kind of a hybrid state. Are we southern? Are we Midwestern? We’re neither one, completely. We’re a sort of hybrid mix of that, and our politics has reflected that.”
The south-central Kentucky region is filled with examples of communities that send moderate-to-conservative Democrats to Frankfort, and very right-wing Republicans to Washington.
Case in point: Barren County.
Glasgow Democrat Johnny Bell is running unopposed next month for his seventh term as a state Representative. But Barren County in 2010 went comfortably for Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul over Democrat Jack Conway, despite a Democratic registration advantage in the county of more than 7,000.
Bobby Richardson is a man who knows these facts well. Richardson is the embodiment of the old-school, southern Democrat. He represented Kentucky’s 23rd House District, which covers Barren and part of Warren counties, from 1972 to 1990. He served as Speaker of the House during the 1982 and 1984 General Assembly sessions.
Speaking to WKU Public Radio in his law office in Glasgow, Richardson said to understand Kentucky’s present political atmosphere, you need a bit of a history lesson. Richardson points out that while Kentucky never joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, it was still subjected to many of the federal government’s Reconstruction policies after the Union prevailed.
“Kentucky was occupied territory even though it hadn’t withdrawn from the Union. So the Republican Party was in the minority because of the anti-federal government feeling,” says Richardson.
And in the 1860’s, being anti-federal government meant being anti-Republican, which was the party of Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction. Southern Democrats continued to support state’s rights over centralized power in Washington, and many Kentuckians became what’s known as “yellow-dog Democrats”, or someone who would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican.
For decades—more than a century, really—parts of Kentucky were a no-man’s land for the GOP. Local and state elections were decided during the Democratic primaries, with little or no Republican challengers to face in the general election.
“It wasn’t respectable to be a Republican probably until, maybe, 50 years ago,” says Richardson.
Many Kentucky Democrats Liked Ike
That started to change when World War II ended, and a victorious U.S. General—and Republican—named Dwight Eisenhower ran for the White House. In winning the Presidential election of 1952, Eisenhower lost Kentucky by less than 1,000 votes to Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower won the Bluegrass State four years later when he was re-elected to a second term.
Bobby Richardson says it was a seminal moment for many Kentucky Democrats who pulled the lever for Eisenhower. What was once unthinkable for many Kentuckians—voting for a Republican—wasn’t the life-ending experience some had assumed it would be.
“What I’m saying is, “well, I voted Republican and I didn’t go blind,” the former Kentucky House Speaker says.
Despite Republican gains in parts of Kentucky over recent years, a look at the state’s registration numbers would give the impression that the commonwealth is still a strong place for Democrats. According to numbers released this month by the Secretary of State’s office, there are 500,000 more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans.
Still, Democrat and former Bowling Green Mayor Patsy Sloan says those numbers are misleading.
“The mere fact that you have this overwhelming Democratic registration really doesn’t mean a darn thing when it comes to Presidential elections, or Senatorial elections,” she says.
Local and even state races are still largely about retail politics, according to Sloan. Winning a seat in Kentucky’s General Assembly takes a lot of hand-shaking, baby-kissing, local parade marching, and speaking at civic organizations like the Rotary Club. Sloan believes people largely vote for state House and Senate offices based on personality--not ideology like they often do during Congressional or Presidential races.
“These local elections are just not ideology-driven. And more and more at the national level, each of the two major parties has been driven to its most extreme element.”
Kentucky Republicans Rule Washington, Dems Strong in Frankfort
Sloan says while Republicans at the national level have in recent years been able to count on Kentucky to vote for John McCain and Mitt Romney for President; and Mitch McConnell, Jim Bunning, and Rand Paul for Senate, Democrats have still been able to muster enough quality local candidates to maintain control of the Kentucky House, while also running the Governor’s Mansion in all but four years since 1971.
But if you talk to enough people in the commonwealth about state politics, you’ll probably hear at some point that a lot of Kentuckians who register as Democrats do so out of a sense of tradition, or family history. Patsy Sloan says many of those voters are the kind who will go Democratic at the local or state level, but often choose Republicans at the top of the ballot.
“They’re registered Democrats largely because of family, tradition, or history, or because that’s just the way it’s always been. But they’re more selective when it actually comes to voting, especially for national level offices.”
When you look at how Kentucky has gone in recent Presidential elections, a pattern starts to emerge. Democrats can win the Bluegrass State—but the last three Democrats to do so have been southerners: Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Democrat and former Kentucky House Speaker Bobby Richardson of Glasgow says there’s a feeling by some southern Democrats that the national party has often picked candidates who are too far to the left to win states like Kentucky.
“I think that in the Democratic Party that the pendulum swung very far to the left when we had Dukakis and McGovern as candidates,” says the Barren County lawyer.
To be sure, not every Kentucky Democrat would describe themselves as a moderate who’s upset with the national party’s Presidential nominees. There’s a diversity of thought throughout the state’s urban areas, college towns, and rural farmlands—just as there are conservative Republicans who eke out an existence in liberal strongholds throughout the nation.
The Mitch McConnell Factor
And how about this for bipartisanship: Democrat and former Bowling Green Mayor Patsy Sloan offered praise during her interview with WKU Public Radio for none other than Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Why? Because, Sloan says, regardless of your political affiliation, you have to give credit to McConnell for what he has done to make the Republican Party a factor in parts of the state where it was once irrelevant.
When asked if she wishes the Kentucky Democratic Party had a major national figure with the stature of Sen. McConnell, Sloan laughs.
“Well, of course I do!” she says. “But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Sloan admits that when she talks shop with fellow Democrats in the region, she sometimes expresses frustration about the number of Democrats who vote for conservative Republicans in U.S. House, Senate, and Presidential elections.
But she says she doesn’t let it get her down.
Being a political junkie, Sloan says, entails observing and analyzing all of the political process—even the parts you don’t personally like.