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WKYT Investigates | Kentucky voting trends

Kentucky may be reliably Republican now, but it hasn’t always been that way.
Published: Oct. 22, 2020 at 4:30 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Bluegrass, red state.

A WKYT Investigates analysis of Kentucky voting patterns shows the commonwealth’s party alignment is reliably Republican. That, however, has not always been the case - and some things stick out.

Read on for some voting notes and trends.

Presidential politics

Kentucky has eight electoral votes. (That total is allocated from the state’s number of senators (2) and representatives (6).)

In the last five presidential elections those electoral votes have all gone to Republicans:

  • 2016: Donald Trump (R) 62.5% - Hillary Clinton (D) 32.7%
  • 2012: Mitt Romney (R) - 60.5% - Barack Obama (D) 37.8%
  • 2008: John McCain (R) - 57.4% - Barack Obama (D) 41.2%
  • 2004: George W. Bush (R) - 59.6% - John Kerry (D) - 39.7%
  • 2000: George W. Bush (R) - 56.5% - Al Gore (D) - 41.2%

State political observers do not expect 2020 to be much different.

“Kentucky’s not one of the states that’s stuck in the middle, able to go either way, the way it would’ve been a couple decades ago,” said Dr. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “Kentucky’s now one of those red-state, so-called ‘flyover’ places that have become loyally Republican.”

Since 1956 - when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected - Kentucky has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate only four times:

  • 1964: Lyndon Johnson
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter
  • 1992: Bill Clinton
  • 1996: Bill Clinton

Before Eisenhower’s election, however, it was the opposite situation, according to historical data accessed on 270towin.com, which tracks election data for all 50 states. Only three Republican candidates won most or all of Kentucky’s electoral votes going back to the Civil War:

  • 1896: William McKinley
  • 1924: Calvin Coolidge
  • 1928: Herbert Hoover

State races

Kentucky’s party affiliation in the presidential race has not always translated to the same in other races down the ballot.

“I think we’ve seen overall a shift in the two political parties at the national level,” said Dr. Anne Cizmar, a government professor at Eastern Kentucky University. “It took some time for state-level or local-level party affiliations to also change and catch up to the new party platforms.”

Kentucky governor is not up for election this year, but it is interesting to note that despite Kentucky’s overall shift to the G.O.P., the commonwealth has elected only three Republican governors in the last 70 years:

  • 2015: Matt Bevin
  • 2003: Ernie Fletcher
  • 1967: Louie B. Nunn

Each of them served only one term.

In 2016, though, Republicans won control of the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time since 1920. (Republicans had taken control of the state Senate back in 1999.)

Changing partisan identities

In what has become a hyper-partisan era, it can be hard for some to imagine in this day and age voting reliably Republican in presidential politics, while voting reliably Democrat in local or state politics. Experts say it happened in Kentucky because of some definitional differences, generational changes and certain factors that allowed many voters to feel comfortable with a “dual partisanship” of sorts.

“What it meant to be a Democrat at the national level was different than what it meant to be a Democrat at the local or state level,” Dr. Cizmar said.

From the Great Depression through the New Deal and even to the Eisenhower years, Dr. Voss said that the parties were mainly divided by class, with Republicans generally the party of the “haves” and Democrats largely the party of the “have nots.” That, he said, is the Democratic party for which Kentuckians voted.

“This is a conservative state with conservative voters when we talk about social and cultural issues,” Dr. Voss said, “less so over the economic issues that used to define American politics and used to define the division between Democrats and Republicans.”

That began to shift with cultural battles that began as early as the 1960s, Voss said, planting the seeds for what happened later on when hot-button issues began to play a much larger role than “lunch pail, bread and butter issues.” The old divisions of parties by class no longer applied.

Experts say the speed with which the focus changed happened quickly, leading to a lag for many voters in changing their political identities.

“I think you saw that people held onto those local party favorites, the local party identification, for much longer than they did the national party identification, because of their own long-standing commitments to their leaders and their party at their state or local level,” Dr. Cizmar said.

The three Democratic presidential candidates for which Kentucky voted were all Southerners. That is important, Dr. Voss said, because being a “southern Democrat” was a unique political distinction that is different in many ways from the Democrat party of today.

“Voters all across the south were able to maintain a dual partisanship for a generation,” Voss said, “where they were voting regularly for Republicans in national elections, but they thought of themselves as Democrats and they were still electing Democrats at home.”

In recent years, several factors contributed to the commonwealth’s solid Republican shift.

“Kentucky’s move right didn’t come out of one particular development,” Dr. Voss said. “We were at the perfect storm of a number of developments that moved different voting groups over to the Republican party.”

Political analysts say those developments came from three different parts of the state, with different reasons for realigning:

  • Appalachia - a focus on cultural/moral values, pushback against Democratic energy/environment policies for coal
  • Western Kentucky - behaves politically like the deep South: longtime Democratic voters at lower levels, with a realignment to the Republican party since the Reagan years
  • Northern Kentucky - a hard shift like many Midwest/suburban areas as a result of the Tea Party movement

Reliability

For a while, Kentucky was a rather reliable bellwether state, meaning it could serve as an indicator of who might win the election:

  • Since 1900, Kentucky has voted for the winner close to three quarters of the time, Ballotpedia notes.
  • In a stretch from 1964 to 2004, Kentucky picked the winner each time.
  • Since the state’s straight G.O.P. stretch began in 2000, that has dropped to 60 percent.

Congressional trends

Kentucky has had at least one Republican senator on Capitol Hill since Mitch McConnell was first elected in 1984. (Senate terms are six years.) The last Democratic senator the state elected was Wendell Ford, whose seat flipped Republican in 1998 after he decided not to run for a fifth term.

U.S. House trends can be trickier to track because, instead of being statewide races, they are broken up into districts whose borders and makeup can (and do) change.

Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District has gone back and forth between parties since the 1970s. The last Democrat to hold its congressional seat was Ben Chandler, who was in office from 2004 until Republican Andy Barr beat him in 2012.

Looking ahead

Experts say the changes Kentucky’s electorate has seen prove that even the most solid red state is not immune to future changes.

“Kentucky may have been reliably Republican later,” Dr. Voss said, “but it’s not safe to assume that Democrats are unable to make inroads.”

That is because even the trends that seem the strongest can be broken.

Take, for example, Elliott County, which voted for Democratic presidential candidates for 144 years - a solid blue county in a sea of red across the commonwealth - until 2016, when it went Republican for Donald Trump.

Still, analysts expect Kentucky to remain a red state in 2020 in the presidential race and its high-profile Senate race.

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