Kentucky 5th District
Mountainous eastern Kentucky has been a unique place since Daniel Boone came through the Cumberland Gap in 1775. As Virginians poured through and created their version of a Tidewater civilization in the Bluegrass country, the people brought their assertive egalitarianism, loyalty to family and community, and passionate willingness to defend honor by feuds or violence. Most of the inhabitants of the mountains today are descendants of the Irish Protestant and Border Scot families who settled there in the two or three generations after Boone. Handed down were living memories of the old ways of doing things from an era when there was little contact with the outside world. The first agent of change here was the Civil War; the second was the great United Mine Workers organizing drives in the coal mines in the 1930s. The Civil War made the mountains and the Cumberland Plateau a stronghold of the Republican Party. This was never slave territory—hardly any blacks have ever lived here—yet communities and families were riven by the rebellion of the South. Today, the counties around Somerset and Corbin in south central Kentucky cast some of the highest Republican percentages in the nation, election after election.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Early in the 20th century, vast seams of coal were discovered under the Kentucky mountains. Representatives of eastern capitalists (including the young Franklin D. Roosevelt) began prowling these hills, hiring town lawyers to buy up mineral rights from unsuspecting farmers, building industrial slum towns in hollows and creek beds beneath glowering, heavily forested mountains. Coal mining was harsh and deadly work. Mine accidents, black lung disease and simple exhaustion killed tens of thousands of miners, while low wages and company stores kept them poor. Then John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers came in, and open warfare followed, with neither mine operators nor union organizers reluctant to use violence and threats. The union mostly won in eastern Kentucky and in the short run raised wages and built hospitals for miners and their families. In the longer run, the impact of the UMW was a phasing out of many jobs in the mines in return for job security and health benefits, as use of oil expanded. Today, there are just over 400 mines in Kentucky, compared with 25 years ago, when there were 2,000. Politically, the UMW counties in the eastern part of the state became heavily Democratic.
In the mid-1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson came to eastern Kentucky and cited the poverty here in pushing for his Appalachian and anti-poverty bills. The high energy prices of the 1970s sparked strip mining, and eastern Kentucky’s economy moved upward. High coal prices in 2004 stepped up the pace at existing mines, but the big mining companies that increasingly controlled production were wary of opening new mines. Mountaintop mining has become common, requiring huge machines and few workers. Most eastern coal counties have lost population since 1980, and counties off the interstate highways have a hard time attracting new businesses. But life here today is much closer to the ordinary American standard of living than it was in Johnson’s time. Income levels are low, but so is the cost of living. Religion remains important here. The Pulaski County Fiscal Court in 2008 voted to appeal the ruling of a federal judge who had tried to stop the county’s display of the Ten Commandments. And this part of Kentucky has produced stars in that quintessentially American medium, country music—Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakum, Crystal Gayle. The Hillbilly Days Festival draws 100,000 people every June to Pikeville.
The 5th Congressional District of Kentucky includes much of the Cumberland Plateau and most of the eastern mountains, a mixture of heavily Republican and heavily Democratic territories. There are huge political differences here between counties separated by just a mountain ridge or two, evidence of the depth of Civil War and United Mine Workers political loyalties, and only somewhat modulated by the recent trend toward Republicans in the coal country. The 5th District, created in the 1991 redistricting, combines most of two former districts, one Democratic and the other Republican. But overall this is a solidly Republican district—it voted 61% for Bush in 2004 and 67% for John McCain in 2008.