Kentucky Democrats have a problem. They just lost the governor’s mansion last month and now there’s a very real chance that their control of the state House is slipping away. That’s significant not just in Kentucky but nationally too; if Democrats lose control of the Kentucky state House, they will control a total of zero legislative chamber in the entire south.
The latest bad news for Kentucky Democrats came this week when Democratic state Rep. Jim Gooch switched parties, the second Democrat to turn Republican since the GOP’s gains in November. Gooch follows his colleague, Rep. Denny Butler as party switchers; two Democratic state representatives have resigned to accept appointments from Kentucky’s new Republican governor, Matt Bevin.
That means when the state legislature convenes in January, there will be 50 Democrats and 46 Republicans in the House — with four vacancies to fill in special elections that could well go to Republicans.
In short, Kentucky is no longer Democrats’ last stronghold of electoral hope in the south. It’s now better described as one of the last states to realign with America’s decades-old north-south political reality: Republicans rule down South; Democrats up North.
The signs this was coming have been around for a while now, notes University of Louisville political science professor Jasmine Farrier. Even though Bill Clinton won the state twice, Mitt Romney won the state in the 2012 presidential election, and GOP candidates triumphed in the 2014 Senate election and the 2015 governor races — often by wide margins. Kentucky’s balance of power finally shifted in November’s statewide elections. Statewide offices, which until November were mostly held by Democrats, are now mostly held by Republicans. The GOP wave was led by Bevin, a businessman whose outside appeal and flare has been likened to GOP front-runner Donald Trump, came from behind to become only the second Republican to lead the state in four decades.
Kentucky’s House is now the lone holdout in a state that you could argue is no longer a holdout from the post-Civil Rights era political realignment. And it didn’t take long after November to watch Democrats’ control of the House start to crumble as well.
“We used to be more of an outlier,” Farrier said. “Now we’re more normal.”
Inevitable realignment or not, there’s probably some blame for Democrats to go around. Farrier says she thinks all this should be a wake up call for the Democratic Party, which has struggled to bridge the urban-rural divide in heavily rural states like Kentucky and hasn’t really found a way to reach across the cultural divides that separate former Southern Democrats with today’s Northern ones.
“What has the Democratic Party done for poor, conservative Evangelical white people?” Farrier said. “And the answer is not much. On God, guns and gays, poor, white Evangelical conservatives would say the Democratic Party walked away from them, and not the other way around.”
Democrats’ fading grip on Kentucky politics may be unique, but it probably didn’t help that Democrats are having trouble holding onto state offices across the country.
During President Obama’s tenure, Republicans clinched more and more control of statehouse and governor’s mansions to the point where The Fix’s Chris Cillizza writes they “an absolute stranglehold” on governor’s seats (64 percent).
After the November 2014 midterms, Republicans have control of an all-time high 68 of 98 state chambers.
Republicans say their dominance at the state level is a result of hard work. They’ve invested heavily in state legislative races this past decade as part of a strategy to control state chambers that will take on congressional redistricting in 2020. It certainly worked for them in 2010.
As a result of much of this, America is increasingly divided into two different countries that rarely touch each other, politically or geographically.
Yet another factor in Democrats’ struggles in the south: Obama’s unpopularity outside those East Coast Democratic enclaves. A Kentucky Democrat is no Massachusetts Democrat, and Obama isn’t particularly liked in some Kentucky Democratic circles.
In announcing his switch to the Republican Party, Rep. Gooch cited the president’s “radical agenda” on environmental regulations and gun control as reason to leave.
The president is arguably in line with the rest of the Democratic Party on these issues, but for more conservative Kentucky Democrats, it may have been a step too far.
“There is this hatred of the president,” Farrier said. “It is very real, and it’s hard to imagine that it will be easily recoverable.”
One thing’s for certain: Democratic control of Kentucky won’t be easily recoverable, at least not until the next major political realignment.
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