A political crimson tide has been washing over Kentucky for decades. There are still more registered Democrats than Republicans in the commonwealth, but the Bluegrass State is turning red.
Let’s go back to the 1984 general election when Republican President Ronald Reagan carried Kentucky on his way to easy reelection, and Republican Mitch McConnell ousted Democratic incumbent Walter “Dee” Huddleston from the U. S. Senate.
There were 1,365,926 registered Democrats in Kentucky then compared to only 578,097 registered Republicans. Allowing for those registered as “other,” Democrats comprised 67.6 percent of Kentucky’s registered voters. Republicans were only 28.6 percent. Put differently, there were 2.4 registered Democrats for every registered Republican in Kentucky.
Come forward to the general election of 2000. Republican George W. Bush carried the state after two terms of Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidency. Democrat Paul Patton was in his second term as Kentucky governor. The GOP, aided by two pivotal party switches, captured control of the Kentucky state senate for the first time.
Democrats then had 1,539,562 registered voters in Kentucky, an increase of 12.7 percent since 1984. But Republican registration rose to 846,621, a dramatic increase of 46.4 percent over sixteen years. That reduced Democrats to 60.2 percent of registered voters, while Republicans were up to 33.1 percent. There were 1.8 registered Democrats for every registered Republican.
Move ahead to the general election of 2008. America elected Democrat Barack Obama as president after two controversial Bush terms. In Kentucky, Democrat Steve Beshear was a year into his governorship after the tempestuous term of Republican Ernie Fletcher.
By then there were 1,662,093 registered Democrats in the commonwealth comprising 57.1 percent of registered voters. Democrats had increased their total by 8 percent since 2000. But Republican registrants had grown to 1,053,871, an increase of 24.5 percent over the intervening eight years. There were then 1.6 registered Democrats in Kentucky for every registered Republican.
Since the 2008 general election Republicans in Kentucky have added 142,312 registrants, an increase of 13.5 percent. Democrats have added only 10,571, and increase of less than 1 percent. Just since the 2012 general election, 44,852 people have registered as Republicans in Kentucky. Only 6,811 have registered as Democrats.
Kentucky now has 1,672,664 registered Democrats and 1,196,183 registered Republicans. Democrats comprise 53.9 percent of registered voters while Republicans constitute 38.6 percent. There are now only about 1.4 Democrats in Kentucky for every Republican.
During their decline Democrats have still managed to carry the state twice for presidential candidate Bill Clinton, retain control of the governorship for all but four years, and maintain their majority in the state House of Representatives. But Democrats also lost the state Senate, both U. S. Senate seats, all but one of the state’s six congressional seats, and four consecutive presidential elections.
What can Kentucky Democrats do to change the voter registration trend? Maybe nothing. But they might stem the tide by acting boldly now before it is too late.
First, state Democrats should decisively divorce themselves from ultra-liberal national Democrats like Obama and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. This advice is not new. After losing to McConnell in 1984 Huddleston advised, “It’s time for our party, the Democratic Party to redefine itself at the national level so that these good Democrats in Kentucky can identify with the party.” Clinton did that to a degree, but Obama has undone it.
Second, Kentucky Democrats should develop a policy agenda that relies less on government programs and wealth transfer and puts more emphasis on accountability, best management practices, and entrepreneurial reforms. A new generation of Democratic leaders like auditor Adam Edelen, Lexington mayor Jim Gray, and Louisville mayor Greg Fischer offer a template for revitalizing the party this way.
Third, Democrats should declare independence from labor unions. These declining special interest groups have had an iron grip on the party too long. There is absolutely no sign state Democrats will do this, however.
Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes may be competitive against McConnell for the U. S. Senate this fall. The state may be in presidential play again if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016.
But it is difficult to see Democrats reclaiming the state Senate or congressional seats anytime soon absent a major makeover.
The big questions in view of the voter registration trend are whether Democrats will lose the state House of Representatives to Republicans this year and the governorship next. The GOP needs a net gain of five seats to do the former and for the Democrats to nominate an old-fashioned candidate, like Attorney General Jack Conway of Louisville, to do the latter.
Regardless of whether Republicans succeed in these two elections the registration trend portends success in the not too distant future. Once blue, now purple, Kentucky seems destined to become bright Republican red. It appears that, as former University of Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger used to say, “The only variable is time.”
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.