SUNDAY EDITION | Election Special: Why a Clinton won’t carry Ken - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Election Special: Why a Clinton won’t carry Kentucky for third time

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) –  The last time Kentucky voted for a Democrat in a presidential election, Bill Clinton pulled off a narrow, 1-percentage point win in 1996.

Twenty years later, another Clinton is on the ballot, but she has virtually no chance of prevailing here on Tuesday.

Pretty much any Republican running in the Bluegrass State would have been expected to beat Hillary Clinton by a comfortable margin in 2016, and forecasting site Five Thirty Eight gives Donald Trump a more-than 99 percent chance of doing so.

Bill Clinton’s two victories in the Bluegrass State  -- where he also won in 1992 – seem like ancient history.

Political experts say the state’s solid-red status for presidential and most Congressional elections has to with a growing chasm between the national Democratic Party and more culturally conservative Kentucky Democrats on flashpoint social issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights.

“The national Democratic party is doing absolutely nothing to appeal to Kentucky voters,” said Steve Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. “They are not trying to be where (Kentucky voters) are in terms of issues or ideology – they have basically written us off.”

As “a Southern governor,” Bill Clinton was “someone who seemed to be in touch with your rural Kentucky Democrat,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former White House political director who lives in Louisville.

Clinton, for example, signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages, Jennings noted.

“As the Democrat party nationally has drifted far to the left, especially on social issues, Democrats in Kentucky have not followed,” Jennings said.

In 1996, Bill Clinton won eastern and western Kentucky coal counties by margins as high as 3-to-1. But now voters in coal country blame President Obama – and Hillary Clinton – for the decimation of the industry, which has lost more than half its jobs since 2008.

Pike and Floyd counties, for example, are still heavily Democratic and have Democratic judge-executives, but “those counties are going to give Trump 70 percent of the vote,” said Danny Briscoe of Louisville, a former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Nor has the national party needed Kentucky’s support in presidential elections.

The Democratic nominee for president has won five of the last six national popular votes thanks to a coalition that is increasingly urban, less religious, more-highly educated and includes a bigger share of the growing minority vote, political journalist Ron Brownstein said on a podcast interview last month.

In other words, a coalition that bears little resemblance to Kentucky.

Whites without a college education, for example, made up half of Bill Clinton’s votes in 1992. By 2012, they accounted for only a quarter of President Obama’s votes, Brownstein said.

Democrats losing ground

Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Kentucky – a holdover, experts say, from the days when the Democratic Party dominated local politics and county judges and commissioners were picked in closed Democratic primaries.

But that advantage has dwindled as voters’ party registration catches up with their actual behavior at the ballot box.

There were twice as many Democrats as Republicans in Kentucky when Bill Clinton achieved his razor-thin victory – with 45 percent of the vote -- over Bob Dole in 1996.

Today, just over half of the state’s 3.3 million voters are Democrats, compared to 40 percent Republican, according to the most recent figures from the Kentucky Board of Elections.

The Republican Party’s gains in Kentucky accelerated during President Obama’s time in office. Since 2008, the state has added 284,183 Republicans and only 31,685 Democrats.

Jennings said the acceleration has to with the decimation of the coal industry in eastern and western Kentucky and what coal country residents see as Obama’s “openly hostile” regulation of the industry.

Voss said Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have fostered a message of “our arrogant federal government destroying our way of life” – and that message has “much broader” appeal than in coal country.  

 “When you pitch it in that way, it has resonance far beyond the people who actually have a direct self-interest in coal mining,” he said.

Jennings noted that Kentuckians in coal country supported Bernie Sanders by wide margins in the Democratic primary in May – what he called a “protest vote” against Clinton, who in March had said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” during a televised forum.

Voss said the state’s shift toward the Republican Party is likely to continue through “gradual, generational replacement” rather than active party-switching.

“In Kentucky for a long time, there wasn’t a lot of choice if you were a Republican and really you got more power if you stayed in the Democratic Party, weighed on their primary and then voted Republican in a general election,” Voss said.

That’s exactly what Rob Rothenburger, the Republican judge-executive of Shelby County, did for a number of years.

Rothenburger, a farmer and former fire chief, always thought of himself as a Republican and registered as such when he turned 18.

“I found out very quickly I didn’t have much of a say-so in local politics,” he said.

So he switched to the Democratic Party just to vote in local elections. Years later, as more Republicans sought local offices, Rothenburger switched back to the GOP and later became the first Republican elected to the county’s top job in 2002. (He is now running for an open seat in the state House of Representatives.)

In the 20 years since Bill Clinton was elected, Shelby County has swung from 74 percent Democrat to 48 percent. Republicans are now 44 percent of voters there, up from 19 percent in 1996.

Only four of the state’s 120 counties have a higher share of Democrats today than twenty years ago  -- Jackson, Edmonson, Martin and Owsley – none of which has more than 14,000 residents.

Voters used to recognize a big difference between Kentucky Democrats and the national party, said Erik Jarboe, executive director of the New Kentucky Project, an organization that takes a post-partisan approach to promote progressive leaders in the state.

“Part of the shift you see is effective strategies by Republicans to get rid of that distinction,” he said.

Jarboe said his organization seeks to “get past party affiliation” and mobilize Kentuckians on core issues of importance like workers’ rights, education and access to healthcare.

“We have to understand that we are Kentuckians first before we are Democrats or Republicans,” he said.


As Republicans try to cement their takeover of state government by winning control of the Kentucky House, the most important race to watch locally the one in south Louisville between incumbent Denny Butler, who switched parties to Republican, and his Democratic challenger McKenzie Cantrell.

Another local House race that bears watching: Republican Dan Johnson is taking on incumbent Rep. Linda Belcher, a Democrat of Shepherdsville, but Johnson was repudiated by state Republican Party over Facebook posts with racist overtones, including photos of the Obama family with super-imposed ape-like features.

And a race for Jefferson County Board of Education is once again drawing big outside spending thanks to a political action committee formed by wealthy Louisville business people. The Bluegrass Fund has spent more than $200,000 on TV ads supporting Fritz Hollenbach, who is trying to unseat Chris Brady for the District 7 school board seat representing southeast Louisville. Brady has the support of the Jefferson County Teachers Union.  

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