Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Is Kentucky Turning Purple?

The question, for those Gentle Readers outside the U.S., refers to U.S. electoral maps which color Democratically dominated states blue and Republican ones red. (There is irony in this because, before the end of the Cold War, the last thing a Republican wanted to be accused of was being “red” or even “pink,” because “reds” were Communists!)  Recent elections and polling suggests that KY is becoming neither “red,” nor “blue,” but purple–or balanced between the major parties. (Now, if only KY would escape the clutches of King Coal and become “Green.” See the results of the stranglehold of coal on KY here.) 

Background: KY was a border state during the Civil War. There had been some slavery, but it was not heavily dependent on slave labor like the Deep South.  So, it failed to choose sides until the South was already losing–then chose the losing side.  KY had been Jacksonian Democratic and then voted Democratic because of a hatred for “Yankee Republican carpetbaggers.”  In the era of Reconstruction, the only progressives in KY were Republicans–until the Populist and Progressive movements spawned their own short-lived political parties, of course.

During the Depression, KY turned thoroughly Democratic because of the New Deal, which especially benefitted the impoverished South.  It became a machine state and in many counties still is.  But, despite having a small African-American population, it was a major battle ground in the ’60s for the Civil Rights struggle.

After the Democratic Party kicked out the racist Dixiecrats and, in ’64 and ’65, embraced the cause of Civil Rights fully as a Party, Democrats began to lose the South (as President Lyndon Baines Johnson predicted). In KY, this was slower than in other parts of the South.  When I came here in ’86, Democrats still controlled both houses of the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, 4 of the 6 U.S. House seats and 1 of the 2 Senate seats.  As the culture wars heated up in the late ’80s and ’90s, this began to change.  Republicans now control the state senate.  Both U.S. Senate Seats are held by the GOP and, from ’94 until ’06, all but one House Seat was Republican. (Now there are two Democratic House districts.) However, KY voted for Jimmy Carter in ’76 and for Bill Clinton twice, so we have sometimes been a swing state in presidential politics.

Yet, from 2000 onward, the state got more conservative and more Republican.  But that seems to be changing, slowly. Not yet on the presidential level–KY is one of the 2 handfuls of states that is solidly for John McCain in every election scenario spun. This is NOT Obama country (except for Louisville)–but probably would not have voted for Hillary Clinton in November, either.   But consider these other recent moves:

In ’07, Democrats took back the State House, throwing out Ernie Fletcher (R ) and his numerous ethics violations and corruption charges, indictments, and pardons. (Unfortunately, Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who was elected because he was NOT FLETCHER, has been a huge disappointment for nearly everyone and, if he doesn’t show some leadership soon, will become a one-term governor, perhaps even losing a primary challenge–despite the fact that the Kentucky Democratic Party, which is an old-style machine, hates primary challenges to incumbent Democrats!)

Before that, and far more important for progressives, John Yarmuth (D) defeated 6 term Rep. Anne Northup (R ) for KY’s 3rd House District (Louisville). It was a very narrow victory (less than 5,000 votes) and all the pundits said that Yarmuth was too liberal for the 3rd District. (In fact, when Yarmuth won the primary, the pundits said that Northup had dodged a bullet because he couldn’t win.) In fact, Northup was too conservative for this most liberal district in the Commonwealth and won for years by simply funneling money illegally into black churches in the West End–where she never came except when campaigning.

This year, Northup is trying for a rematch for this seat, but Yarmuth has a 17 point lead. Yarmuth has NOT channeled any money through churches, but he set up an office in the West End and regularly meets with this neglected section of the City. He comes to all sections to hear the concerns of his constituents. He has won the construction of a new VA hospital here –one of Northup’s singular issues that she regularly failed to deliver, despite sitting on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  Yarmuth became president of the Freshman Class of Congresspeople elected in ’06.  It looks very much like he will be reelected by a much higher % than he won in ’06.

Now, the 2nd district, much more conservative than the 3rd, is heating up this year.  Rep. Ron Lewis (R-02KY) surprised both friends and adversaries by deciding not to run for another term. So, the 2nd is an open seat.  SurveyUSA did a poll on 30 June that showed a statistical dead heat with the Democratic candidate in the lead!  David Boswell (D) is leading Brett Guthrie (R) 47% to 44%, within the margin of error! This has excited KY Dems, who are now donating online through the Netroots and challenging the national party to help out.  Stay tuned.

In the 01st District, Rep. Ed Whitefield (R-O1KY), beholden to the Oil and Coal lobbies, is being challenged by Heather A. Ryan (D ). Ryan is a woman whose son was a Democratic poster child for expanding the S-CHIP (State Child Health Insurance Plan) program in ’07. The Republican response, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), smeared Ryan and her son with lies.  Ryan is battling to change things in Washington and is a real netroots progressive.  I don’t know her chances, but I like her fight.

That would make 4 Democratic House Seats in KY and 2 Republican ones. Quite a change in a year, if it happens.

Then there’s our Senate race.  Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has less than 50% approval ratings and 47% disapproval ratings.  In his role as Senate Minority Leader, he has blocked much popular legislation that KY favors, including S-CHIP expansion, better body armor and more leave time for troops, ending oil and gas speculation, the Climate Defense Act, and Medicare renewal.  In addition, he voted against the new G.I. Bill that was passed anyway, against the raising of the minimum wage (passed anyway), for Social Security privatization, etc.  KY has noticed this, which is why businessman Bruce Lunsford (D), not the greatest nominee for a replacement, is only 4-7% behind McConnell, depending on the poll.  Lunsford would be a centrist to conservative Democrat in the Senate, but he’d be a huge improvement over McConnell.

And, in 2010, KY’s Junior Senator, Jim Bunning (R-KY) is looking extremely vulnerable. (I hope Democrats recruit State Auditor Crit Luallen (D), breast cancer survivor (so, she’s a proven fighter) who won reelection by 70%!) He barely won re-election in 2004 by accusing his opponent (now our Lt. Gov.) of “looking like Saddam Hussein’s sons!” Somehow I doubt that would work with Luallen.

KY’s moves to a more progressive political climate are not as fast as in the nation as a whole, but we are moving. 

Again, now if we break our coal addiction and turn Green, I’ll really be happy.

Update:  Kentucky is just one of several Southern and Southwestern states, formerly GOP strongholds, that are turning Democratic at different rates: Virginia (which, barring a major disaster, will wake up on 05 Nov. with TWO Democratic Senators–former Gov. Mark Warner(D) is now nearly 30 points ahead of former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R )–and where Obama and McCain are virtually tied 51/49 in current polling); North Carolina; New Mexico; Colorado; Nevada; Georgia (although I think Obama’s chances here are a longshot–but maybe in 2012), and even Texas!  That’s right, TEXAS is going through a Democratic revival–the very state where Bush, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay tried to create a “permanent Republican majority” and came close to succeeding just a few years ago.  Texas is an even bigger longshot for Obama than Georgia this year (it would take too much money that could better be spent in New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, etc.), but Democrats are poised to take back the state legislature and therefore effect the redistricting in 2010 out of the DeLay’s legally questionable gerrymandering. That and other changes detailed in the article linked above could help Obama win this in 2012.  If the current Texas Democratic revival continues, by 2020 Texas could become, behind California, the second largest reliably Democratic state with 32 electoral votes (projected to be 40 by 2030).  That would make presidential electoral math very difficult for Republicans. (Maybe then we’d get GOP help in getting rid of the outdated electoral college and elect presidents by popular vote like every other democracy!)

My big fear in all this Democratic revival is that Democrats will become as arrogant and corrupt with power as the GOP has done since the Gingrich revolution of ’94.  Democrats had to change or die. That may soon be the case for Republicans, too.  Could we see the first death of a major political party since the end of the Federalists in 1812? Could the Libertarians replace the Republicans? Or would the Democrats then become the “conservative” or corporate-centrist party and the Greens arise on the left?


July 3, 2008 - Posted by | U.S. politics


  1. If Kentucky would just dump Mitch,they would do the country a BIG favour.

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | July 4, 2008

  2. Well, T, I agree and it looks like we may do it. I think our chances would have been better with another candidate than Lunsford, who ran for governor twice and lost–and who has switched between Democratic and Republican parties so that many KY Dems don’t trust him. But, our best chance, State Auditor Crit Luallen (who won reelection in ’07 with 70% of the vote!), refused to run and our second best chance, Lt. Col. Andrew Horne, Louisville attorney and retired Marine who is an Iraq veteran who is against the war, was forced to step aside by the Kentucky Democratic Party.

    So, we’re stuck with Lunsford as the way to get rid of McConnell. But, McConnell will also face a Libertarian opponent who may shave off points to his right and Lunsford is in a statistical dead heat with McConnell. So, we have a good, if not great, chance of Ditchin’ Mitch in November.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 5, 2008

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