Bluegrass Politics: Shades of blue

Jan 9, 2007 at 9:15 pm
If November’s election of John Yarmuth (D) to the U.S. Congress wasn’t a clear enough sign that Kentucky’s political pendulum had finally begun swinging back to the Democratic column, then last week’s legislative leadership and committee elections in Frankfort should leave little doubt.

Last Tuesday, House Democrats shunned more conservative members and elected two moderates to leadership: Rep. Rob Wilkey (D-Scottsville) as whip and Rep. Charlie Hoffman (D-Georgetown) as caucus chairman. Days later, that newly reconstituted House leadership sent a clear signal that change was upon us when it elevated three women and one African American to the ranks of committee chairs, even naming one of its most liberal members, Rep. Kathy Stein (D-Lexington), to chair the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

It was impossible to miss how dramatically, and improbably, Kentucky’s political landscape has changed in just two years, considering how methodically the Republican Party amassed power for more than a decade.

To pinpoint the genesis of the 12-year Republican bull run, many observers cite the upset victory of political neophyte Ron Lewis (R) in a 1994 congressional special election after the death of U.S. Rep. William Natcher (D). Later that year, former State Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) joined Lewis in Congress by defeating U.S. Rep. Tom Barlow (D), and Republicans unseated three incumbent Democratic state senators. And by most accounts, 1994 was the first clear muscle-flexing of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R) emerging political machine.

For the next 10 years, Kentucky Republicans methodically gained ground on Democrats and began dismantling their political fortresses: holding both U.S. Senate seats by 1998; taking the State Senate in 1999; and finally taking back the governor’s mansion in 2003, ending a 32-year drought. By the end of 2004, Kentucky was a barren wasteland for Democrats.

That year, incumbent U.S. Rep. Anne Northup defeated Democrat Tony Miller by 22 points in Louisville, while President Bush won Kentucky by 20 points. The Democrats’ majority in the State House shrunk to 57-43 following the loss of seven seats, and after the defection of another member to the GOP in 2005, Republicans had their most House seats since 1944.

It seemed little could stop the Republicanization of Kentucky, now certifiably a “red state.”

But if Kentucky Republicans flourished following the personal failings of President Bill Clinton (D) and Gov. Paul Patton (D), the party’s unraveling came about because of the public failings of President George W. Bush (R) and Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R).

By mid-2005 the political world turned upside down, thanks to the Merit System investigation of the Fletcher administration at the state level, and the war in Iraq and the Republican culture of corruption at the national level. In both cases, the political tide began turning as the public started to realize Republicans were becoming the very thing they’d successfully campaigned against not so long ago.

Last year, despite moribund leadership within the Kentucky Democratic Party, Democrats were back in the game. That culminated in an unlikely congressional victory by an unapologetic liberal (Yarmuth) over Northup, who had survived several previous attempts for her seat. Additionally, Democrats defeated seven incumbent Republican state reps, giving them a super-majority once again.

Those gains came amid a national wave that gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress for the first time since ’94, and the pick-up of a half-dozen governor’s mansions. In doing so, they elected San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the U.S. House.

In Kentucky, the tide blocked McConnell’s path to Senate Majority Leader (he was instead elected minority leader) while landing U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D) not only in the majority, but also winning him a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Even more problematic for Kentucky Republicans was not just their losses at the ballot box but a precipitous decline in the registration of new Republicans. In July 2005, 46 percent of new voters in Kentucky registered as members of the Republican Party. By October 2006, that figure had dropped sharply but consistently, to just 35 percent.

It’s still unclear whether these developments are a true sign of a shift back to political parity or just a bad election cycle for Republicans. This year’s gubernatorial election should give us a better gauge of any longer-term shift, as should next year’s congressional elections. But there is evidence that Democrats are learning to adapt, and succeed, in Kentucky’s complicated and finicky political landscape, which belies its red state stereotype.

We begin 2007 with shades of blue throughout the state’s political foliage. How it will look a year from now is anyone’s guess.

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