GovernorSteve Beshear (D)
SenatorsMitch McConnell (R)
Jim Bunning (R)
- 2 D, 4 R
- 1 through 6
Kentucky, the first state west of the Appalachian chain to be admitted to the union, in many ways remains close to its beginnings. This is, literally, a Jeffersonian commonwealth: It is one of four commonwealths—the others are Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—and when the first settlers came here, in the years when Thomas Jefferson was writing his Notes on Virginia, this region was part of that state. Kentucky was admitted to the union in 1792, when Jefferson was secretary of state. Aroused by the Federalists’ anti-sedition acts, Jefferson ghostwrote the Kentucky Resolutions, a defense of self-governance by the states, in 1798. Kentucky’s largest county is named after Jefferson, and its largest city after the monarch to whom he was credentialed as ambassador to France, Louis XVI. To this day, Kentucky has a constitution informed by a Jeffersonian suspicion of concentrating power. Its one-term limit on governors was raised to two only in 1995. It limited its state Legislature to one 60-day session every two years until 2001, so much important business was done in special sessions. Every governor must swear that he or she has not participated in a duel (remember what Jefferson thought of Aaron Burr). Kentucky long favored the Democratic Party, which can trace its ancestry at least tenuously back to Jefferson. But here too there has been change recently. The state voted for George W. Bush twice, after twice voting, by diminishing margins, for Bill Clinton. In 2008, Kentucky remained immune to the charms of Barack Obama, who campaigned scarcely at all here and lost both the Democratic primary and the general election by wide margins. Both of Kentucky’s senators and four of its six House members are Republicans, but Democrats still have a lead in party registration. They recaptured the governorship in 2007 and hold a nearly 2-1 ratio in the state House.
The agrarian Jefferson would approve of Kentucky’s current demography, which is still quite rural, with well under half the population living in the big metropolitan areas of Louisville, Lexington, and the Northern Kentucky counties across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. And the tobacco planters, who once presided over what one historian called ‘‘the alcoholic republic,’’ might not entirely disapprove of a Kentucky economy that remained for years heavily dependent on such century-old industries as whiskey (Bourbon County is where the beverage was invented in the 18th century), tobacco (Kentucky has long been the nation’s number No.2 producer after North Carolina), and coal. But change is coming. Kentucky has ranked No. 1 in percentage of smokers, but the Lexington Urban County Council voted a ban on smoking in public places. Employment is down sharply in the coal and tobacco industries, although Kentucky still has big plants producing appliances, Toyotas, Ford trucks, and Lexmark printers. The state is also home to Humana health services and Ashland Oil. Still, this is an economy that did not partake in much of the bounteous growth of the past two decades.
Many of the buildings here are old: the small-town 19th-century courthouses, the cabins in the coal-mining Appalachians, the unpainted houses in the soggy lowlands beneath the levees by the Mississippi River. Kentucky is the home of some of the nation’s oldest traditions, from bourbon to bluegrass music to religious revivals; the Disciples of Christ got their start in the enormous revival at Cane Ridge in 1801. Mother’s Day was invented here in 1887, and a Louisville restaurant claims credit for inventing the cheeseburger. Some things have changed. Satellite dishes and four-lane highways have brought modern civilization into hollows and lowland farms that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity within living memory, and farmers have begun to diversify their crops. Eastern Kentucky farmers raise goats for meat production, and the state touts its vineyards and fruit orchards. But Kentuckians still have a strong attachment to place and family. Kentucky’s population grew just 42% over the past 50 years, while the nation’s almost doubled. Few outsiders have moved in, so most of today’s residents are descendants of settlers who poured over the mountains in the 40 years after Daniel Boone made his way through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.
Kentucky has seen hearty, though lopsided, political competition, with most of the 120 counties stilly voting today as they did in the Civil War era. The eastern mountains were pro-Union and remain Republican, except for counties where coal miners were organized by the United Mine Workers in the 1930s. The Bluegrass region and the western end of the state were slaveholding territory and voted Democratic. However, both regions are prone to shift for specific candidates: Coal-mining country voted against Obama in November 2008. Louisville, with many German immigrants, was an anti-slavery town, and for years flirted with Republicans, but Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, was conspicuously more Democratic in 2004 and 2008 than the state as a whole. For years, all of this meant Democratic Party control, with the real battles in the primary elections. For nearly half a century, there was almost a two-party system within the dominant party, with factions going back to the 1938 primary, when Senate Majority Leader (and later Vice President) Alben Barkley was challenged by Gov. A.B. (Happy) Chandler, who was later a U.S. senator and commissioner of baseball. Barkley’s faction was later led by Gov. Bert Combs (1959-63) and Gov. Wendell Ford (1971-74). Since then, partisan competition has been sharper. Democrat Paul Patton was only narrowly elected governor in 1995, although he easily won reelection in 1999. In 2003, after the term-limited Patton was tarred by scandal, Republican Ernie Fletcher beat Attorney General Ben Chandler, the grandson of Happy Chandler. Fletcher, himself touched by scandal, lost 59%-41% to Democrat Steve Beshear in 2007. Republicans won the offices of secretary of state and agriculture commissioner; Democrats won the offices of attorney general, treasurer, and auditor.
The change has been most pronounced in congressional elections. Much of this has been the work of Sen. Mitch McConnell, first elected in 1984 and now the Republican leader in the Senate. McConnell helped line up candidates who carried three formerly Democratic congressional districts in 1994 and 1996; he provided key support for Sen. Jim Bunning’s 6,766-vote win in 1998 and his 22,652-vote win in 2004. In July and August 1999, party switches gave Republicans a 20-18 margin in the state Senate, where they had been outnumbered 30-8 in 1990. More recently, there has been a shift in the other direction. Chandler, after losing to Fletcher in 2003, won a House seat in a 2004 special election, and in 2006, Democrat John Yarmuth ousted Republican Anne Northup in the Jefferson County seat. McConnell himself was put on the defensive when health care executive Bruce Lunsford challenged him in 2008, but McConnell held on. Down the ballot, Republicans held their 4-2 edge in Kentucky’s congressional delegation and their 22-15-1 margin in the state Senate, while Democrats failed to add to their 65-35 majority in the state House.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
For many years, Kentucky was a competitive state when Democrats ran a Southerner or two on their ticket, as in such widely separated years as 1952, 1976, 1980, 1992, and 1996. In 2000, Al Gore initially targeted Kentucky, which is just north of his home state of Tennessee and which the Clinton-Gore ticket carried twice. But Kentucky was part of the rural trend away from Clinton Democrats and toward Republicans in the 1990s, and Gore had taken stands seen as hostile to the state’s leading industries—tobacco, coal, and automobiles. Bush swept the state, 57%-41%. In 2004, Kentucky was never on anyone’s list of battleground states, and Bush won 60%-40%. He lost Jefferson County 50%-49%, but carried 108 of the 119 other counties. John Kerry carried just Jefferson and 11 counties in the eastern mountains.
In the 2008 presidential election, Kentucky was a battleground state of sorts—not a target state but something in the nature of a killing field for the otherwise spectacularly successful Barack Obama. The state’s May primary had not been critical in living memory, but the Democratic race was still undecided at that point, and Kentucky, voting on May 20, was coming on strong for Hillary Rodham Clinton. As early as February 12, when the Virginia primary returns came in, it was apparent that Clinton was very strong or Obama was very weak—or both—in the great Appalachian chain settled by Scots-Irish who streamed southwest and over the mountains in the 18th and 19th centuries. These are fighting peoples, as Virginia Sen. Jim Webb has memorialized in his book Born Fighting, and they were the constituency least attracted to Obama in the primaries and most inclined to abandon him in the general election. Democratic registration in Kentucky spiked upward before the primary, but this did not benefit Obama as similar trends did in other states.
Clinton campaigned hard in the state, while Obama made only one appearance after August 2007, in the week before the primary. Clinton’s ads portrayed her as a fighter for the people; Obama ran a few ads stressing his Christian faith—a response, perhaps, to polls that showed his long association with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright hurting him with Kentucky voters. Clinton beat Obama 65%-30%. He carried Louisville’s Jefferson County and Lexington’s Fayette County, and lost the other 118 counties; in 19 counties he won less than 10% of the vote. Twenty percent of voters said that race was important in their vote, and 80% of those voters went for Clinton. But Obama, with his professorial demeanor and his promise to sit down without preconditions with the leaders of enemy states, was also out of sync with the martial traditions of the Scots-Irish Andrew Jackson and the Kentucky war hawk Henry Clay. Kentucky turned out to be Obama’s third-weakest primary state, after Arkansas and West Virginia.
Obama did not target Kentucky in the general election; the state has a much smaller black population than either Virginia or North Carolina, which he targeted successfully, and fewer upscale whites than Indiana, which he also targeted successfully. An increase in Democratic registration did not help Obama. The exit poll showed that he won only 69% of the vote from self-identified Democrats, far lower than in almost any other state. Without much effort, John McCain carried Kentucky 57%-41%, the same as George W. Bush’s victory in 2000. Of those who said they favored Clinton for the Democratic nomination, only 54% voted for Obama; 45% voted for McCain. Obama increased the Democratic percentage by 5% in Jefferson and Fayette counties and in Northern Kentucky, but he ran behind John Kerry’s 2004 percentage in 63 of 120 counties. Those losses came in the Appalachian coal-mining counties in the east and south-central portions of the state, and in the far western area known historically as the Jackson Purchase. He carried only eight counties altogether—fewer in the Appalachian region than George McGovern carried in 1972—and made gains over previous Democratic showings in a few counties where it appears that the Obama campaign did some outreach to African-Americans. The exit poll showed that he carried young voters by only a 51%-48% margin and those with postgraduate degrees by just 52%-48%.
|111th Congress: 2 D, 4 R|
Kentucky’s 1991 redistricting plan, drawn by Democrats after the state lost one U.S. House seat in the 1990 census, was intended to protect Democratic incumbents but instead produced a delegation that was 5-1 Republican by 1996. Party control of the state Legislature in 2001 was split. House Democrats prepared a plan that would have made re-election more difficult for Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield, while state Senate Republicans backed a plan to add heavily Republican Oldham County to the 3rd District to strengthen Rep. Anne Northup. The impasse continued through January 2002, delaying the January 29 filing deadline for candidates. On February 1, the Legislature finally adopted a compromise plan that changed the lines very little, with one important exception: It removed increasingly Republican suburban Shelby County from the 4th District and added three and a half traditionally Democratic counties.
Kentucky is expected to keep all of its House seats in the reapportionment following the 2010 census. And if neither party has control of the process, the likely result is only a minor alteration of district boundaries.