Snapshot of Local (Kentucky) Politics
I first arrived in Kentucky in January of ’86. The state as I found it then was culturally conservative, but politically moderate. Like much of the South, it had a tradition of voting Democratic, but most KY Dems tended to be on the conservative side. Sitting at the intersection of the upper South and the Midwest, KY’s history MOSTLY reflects the Southern story, but with interesting twists: Catholic missionaries came in with Daniel Boone in the 18th C., so, whereas a large Catholic presence is a recent development in much of the South, it has been a dimension of KY life since we were a large western county of Virginia! As Louisville became a major port city with massive riverboat traffic in the 19th C., we attracted numerous Jewish merchants. In much of the South, Jews are still a tiny minority, but in Louisville, KY’s largest and most prosperous city, there has been a significant Jewish presence (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform) since the 19th C. I was raised in FL, but most of the Jews I knew there were secularized. I had to come to KY to meet numerous practicing Jews.
Other historical features: Slavery existed in Antebellum KY, but on a much smaller scale than in the Deep South–and there was a prominent abolitionist movement as well. Because of this, KY didn’t secede from the Union–until the South had already lost the Civil War. KY was a site of many prominent Civil War battles, but it was truly conflicted. Later, it did become wholeheartedly segregationist–but there was a strong resistance movement, too. Numerous Civil Rights campaigns of the ’60s took place in KY. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s younger brother, Rev. A.D. King, was a Louisville pastor and leader of the Louisville chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.) Kentucky ratified the Equal Rights Amendment–and then tried to take it back even though the U.S. Constitution doesn’t provide for states UN-ratifying amendments.
Like Ohio, our neighbor to the North, Kentucky has been the destination of many refugees from global wars settled in the U.S.–which has given us a larger immigrant population than most Southern or Midwestern states. It’s still relatively small, but at least in Louisville and Lexington, it makes us more diverse than many assume.
When I came here in ’86, this meant that registered Democrats FAR outnumbered registered Republicans, but that the state was beginning to vote Republican nationally. We had a woman Gov., Martha Lane Collins (D-KY), one Democratic Senator (the late Wendell Ford) and one Republican Senator (Mitch McConnell, now the Minority Leader) and Democrats held 4 of the 6 U.S. House seats. But that was beginning to change. By the end of the ’80s, Republicans held 3 of the 6 U.S. House seats and KY had voted for Reagan as Pres. twice and then voted for Bush I. Bill Clinton only partly stemmed that tide: KY voted for Clinton twice (’92 and ’96), but there was a large indep. Ross Perot vote each time–and in the GOP wave of ’94, Republicans held 4 of 6 House seats–and captured the state senate which they’ve held ever since. In ’96, McConnell protegé Ann Northup (R-KY-03) captured the Democratic stronghold of Louisville, leaving KY only 1 Democratic House seat. When Wendell Ford retired in ’98, McConnell helped former baseball all-star Jim Bunning (R-KY) pick up KY’s other U.S. Senate seat. And when popular KY Gov. Paul Patton (D-KY) left office in a sex scandal in ’03, Republicans even voted in a GOP Gov in Ernie Fletcher (R-KY)–another McConnell protege. And KY voted overwhelmingly for Bush II twice.
So, by 2005, KY seemed to be moving solidly in a Republican direction. Voter registration was still more Democratic than Republican, but voting patterns were Democratic only in local elections. The KY Democratic Party seemed old and worn and in-bred. If you were a KY Democrat, much less a KY progressive or liberal, things looked increasingly grim.
The slow road back began with VT Gov. Howard Dean’s tenure as Chair of the Democratic National Convention (Jan. 2005-Jan. 2009). Dean’s 50 state strategy to rejuvenate the Democratic party nationally, and think beyond single election cycles, didn’t pay the immediate dividends in KY that it did elsewhere, but it did inject some new life. Also, the entire 2nd term of the Bush presidency hurt the Republican Party and created new young, progressive activists in KY just as elsewhere. These young turks weren’t immediately welcomed by the KY Dem Party machine, much less listened to, but they refused to go away. In the banner Democratic year of ’06, KY Dems reclaimed a House seat: former alternative newspaper publisher John Yarmuth, a man the pundits said was too liberal for the district, knocked off Ann Northup for 3rd district. Yarmuth has been a true progressive champion, too. We had 2 Dem. House seats again. In ’07, Dems took back the governor’s mansion–as Ernie Fletcher was found to be involved in several ethics scandals (and possibly even crimes).
This wasn’t a perfect comeback: People weren’t thrilled with Gov. Steve Beshear (D-KY) who campaigned only on one issue–putting casinos across the state. (Quick, think of the fastest way to unite 2 traditional political enemies: KY’s horseracing industry and the Kentucky Council of Churches. You guessed it. They teamed up to squash Beshear’s gambling bill FLAT!) Kentuckians, including myself, voted for Beshear only because he wasn’t Fletcher. And those ’06 and ’07 victories were not to last:
’08 was an amazing year for Democrats and KY could’ve caught that wave. Had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee, I believe KY would’ve been colored Democratic blue on election night ‘o8. But Barack Obama was culturally too distant from the state–and still is. Had his name been “Frank Jones,” and he been born in the South, KY MIGHT have overcome its racism and cultural conservatism to vote for him, but not with his name and birth in Hawai’i, time spent in Indonesia, education at Columbia and Harvard Law, and political home in Chicago. Even apart from the rightwing smears about Obama as a “secret Muslim,” “born in Kenya,” etc., he was simply too “other” for the rural parts of this state–which is most of it. So, most Democrats in KY didn’t really hope for Obama to win this state–we just wanted him to get close enough to help downticket races. Our big target was Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose polls had never been lower, and who was in line to be Minority Leader–and obstructionist in chief to the agenda that Obama and the Democrats were elected on in ’08. We had a very real chance of knocking McConnell off, too–Lt. Col. Andrew Horne (D-KY), a Louisville attorney and U.S. Army reservist was an Iraq War Vet against the war and he was running a grassroots campaign that could’ve destroyed McConnell. Louisville businessman Greg Fischer (D-KY), now our mayor, was also running a credible campaign. But the KY Dem machine forced both of them out and annointed the wealthy Bruce Lunsford (D), who had run and lost many, MANY, state races simply because Lunsford could self-finance.
Even then, Lunsford started out ahead of McConnell in the polls, but McConnell outspent him, ran ads touting McConnell’s many earmarks (no friend of John McCain) and pork for KY and ran other ads painting Lunsford as a carpetbagger (he has homes in several states) and linking him to Obama and the dreaded liberal Speaker (now House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Lunsford’s responses were slow and clumsy and even with Bill and Hillary Clinton stumping for him, Obama at the top of the ticket did him no favors and McConnell won re-election again. And used his “leadership” with Senate Republicans to block most efforts to reverse the Bush-Recession.
In 2010, a terrible year for Democrats, Democrats failed to take the open Senate seat of retiring Jim Bunning–with Atty. Gen. Jack Conway (D-KY) losing to Tea Party nutcase Rand Paul (R-KY). John Yarmuth (D-KY-03) and Ben Chandler (D-KY-06) barely kept their House seats and Dems make no gains elsewhere in the state. It looked like KY was moving back in a Republican direction.
But grassroots activism and Republican overreach seems to be reversing this in 2011. Gov. Steve Beshear is no progressive. He frustrates the hell out of us–letting coal companies continue to rape our mountains, spending no political capital to stop the legalized loansharking of payday lenders, lending no hand to gay rights efforts which have paid off in Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green (and soon in Berea?) to go statewide with protections against bullying, hate crimes, and employment and housing discrimination. Plus, Beshear has violated the separation of church and state by spending tax money to help fundamentalists build a Creationist Museum, and now theme park–which will be a waste of money as well as make the state the laughingstock of the nation. But for all his flaws, Beshear has grown with his job–Upon election he found that Fletcher had embezzled billions and drained the state’s coffers. With the legislature killing his plan for casinos, Beshear had to find some way to raise revenue–and pulled off the minor miracle in this state of getting a tax hike on alcohol AND TOBACCO. Because of that, and because most of the budget cuts came BEFORE the national recession, KY has weathered the storm better than most states–without cutting teachers, cops, firefighters, or social services too grimly. (He doesn’t want to admit it, but Beshear also used every bit of Obama stimulus money he could, too.) He’s successfully kept some major employers from leaving (and some are actually expanding) and is slowly attracting new business.
For all these reasons, Beshear appears poised to completely wallop his GOP challenger, state senate majority leader David Williams (R-KY) this November. See the poll here. Sure, November is months away, but 21 points is a CRUSHING lead! Williams is the least liked elected official in the state. And he has praised the GOP plan to kill Medicare–something Beshear will hang around his neck like an anchor!
More than this, KY Dems look in a position to win EVERY statewide race this year. See here. Fresh off his 2010 defeat to nutcase Rand Paul (R-KY), I was afraid that Atty. Gen. Jack Conway (D-KY) might have trouble come re-election time. But he is leading McConnell pawn Todd P’Pool by 26 points! (That’ll close because McConnell will spend tons of money on P’Pool in an attempt to end Conway’s political career.) Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY), a proud progressive who isn’t afraid to call herself “liberal and progressive” and to push progressive policies, is running for Secretary of State and is ahead of some dude named Bill Johnson (R-KY) by 11 points. Incumbent state treasurer Todd Hollenbach (D-KY) has a 17 point lead over his closest competitor in a 3 way race. Bob Farmer (D-KY) running for Ag Commissioner, has a 25 point lead over his competitor. The only race which is close is that of state auditor. Incumbent State Auditor Crit Luallen (D-KY), the most popular statewide elected official, is term limited and neither of her would-be replacements is well known. Still, Democrat Adam Edelen (D-KY) has a slight lead over Republican John Kemper (R-KY), 38-35% with the rest undecided. Luallen and other KY Dems need to campaign hard for Edelen.
No one has polled state legislators, but I hope if KY Dems do this well in November, we can also take over the state senate while keeping the state general assembly.
This puts KY Dems in better shape than we have been in a long time. If Conway wins big, he could be in a position either to challenge McConnell in ’14 or to wait and try for governor. (Beshear’s Lt. Gov., Dan Mongiardo, resigned to run against Conway in the primary in ’10 for the open U.S. senate seat eventually claimed by Tea Partier Rand Paul. His new Lt. Gov., is former Louisville mayor, Jerry Abrahamson, who spent way too many years as mayor and whom NO ONE sees as a potential governor.) Or, if Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY-06) wins reelection in ’12 easily with a large campaign chest left over (and Chandler plans to tie his opponent firmly to Republican plans to kill Medicare), then he might take on McConnell in ’14. Outgoing State Auditor Crit Luallen (D-KY) needs to be kept in the public eye. She’s hugely popular and could be a future governor or senator. Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY) is also a future governor or senator–and maybe the best hope of KY Democrats for a viable future candidate for U.S. President.
KY Dems cannot take anything for granted. Even if we win big in ’11, as we did in ’07, Obama will be on the top of the ticket in ’12. Elsewhere, that’s a downticket advantage for Democrats–but not in KY. Still, in ’12, KY has no U.S. senate seats up for grabs. But every KY Republican House member voted to kill Medicare while both our Democratic Reps voted to keep it. I figure that means, with the right candidate recruiting and campaigns, KY Dems should keep both our incumbent House members and pick up 1-3 more. And, although not across the board, we are starting to grow and elect BETTER Democrats and not just more of them. We may even push enough electoral reform to allow the KY Green Party to become a viable force.
There is also a strong spirit among KY progressives–environmentalists taking on King Coal for the sake of the remaining Appalachian Mountains; alternative energy entrepeneurs attracting green businesses; organized labor resisting attempts to strip collective bargaining rights (which would surely be in trouble if Williams were to become governor!); gay rights activists–blocked by the ’04 state constitutional amendment from seeking marriage equality, but still working strong on other fronts and making progress, city by city, town by town; community organizers against pay day lenders, for drug courts; advocates for the homeless; public transportation and light rail advocates;–and many more. We have many setbacks, but we are here and getting stronger. I wouldn’t have bet that the shape of things would look like this when I looked around after election day ’04 or election day ’11.
If only we can keep thinking longterm and not just to the next election cycle. Growing progressive power for the purposes of progressive causes takes time and effort–youthful energy and older wisdom. I can’t predict the future–but I like the current political snapshot of the Bluegrass State.
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