Blue Grass

By

Lexington, Kentucky

Kentucky, Fred Barnes declared on Fox News in November 2003, "is a
realignment state." He and other jubilant Republicans certainly had
reason to think so. What had once been a Democratic
stronghold--Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992 and 1996, and
Democrats controlled the governor's mansion for more than a
generation--seemed to be slipping into Republican hands. Both of
Kentucky's senators were Republicans, as were five of its six House
members. George W. Bush had won the state by a solid margin in
2000. And Ernie Fletcher was about to become Kentucky's first GOP
governor since 1967.Ah, what a difference four years make. Today, instead of Republicans
trumpeting Kentucky as a realignment state, it is Democrats who see
the state as indicative of their rising national fortunes. "I think
that, in many ways, Kentucky's election will be a harbinger of
movement across the country," Democratic gubernatorial candidate
Steve Beshear tells me while campaigning in Lexington last week.
With days to go before the election,the blue-eyed, silver- haired
Beshear--who looks like an aging matinee idol--is energetically
seeking votes in a middle-class subdivision here, but, really, he's
just running up the score: For months, polls have shown him routing
Fletcher. And, three days later, with an 18-point margin of
victory, he does just that.

In some ways, Fletcher was an easy target. He had won office in 2003
on a promise to "clean up the mess in Frankfort" and to abolish
"the good-ol'-boy system" that had led Democratic governors to
flout the state's merit-based method for awarding government jobs.
But, two and a half years later, a grand jury indicted 13 of
Fletcher's aides and associates for doing exactly what he had
promised not to do: handing out jobs based on political loyalty
rather than merit. And Fletcher hardly helped his case by issuing a
blanket pardon to any administration officials who had been or
would be indicted.

But Beshear's lopsided victory this week was about more than local
corruption. It was also the latest indication that Kentucky may be
moving back into the Democratic column. That will have significance
beyond this year and beyond Kentucky's borders. If the Democrats
can carry Kentucky in 2008, they will be well on their way to
winning a majority in the Electoral College--and perhaps producing
a realignment of their own.

The GOP's grip on Kentucky began to loosen in 2004. Bush carried the
state, but, according to exit polls, 40 percent of those who voted
for him did so because they disliked John Kerry. In the Senate race
that year, Republican Jim Bunning barely won reelection by two
points against a little-known state senator. Then, two years later,
Democrat John Yarmuth, the editor of an alternative Louisville
newsweekly and, by his own description, an "unabashed liberal,"
upset five-term Representative Anne Northup. Democrats have also
outpaced Republicans in new party registrants, adding 128,392
members from June 2005 to October 2007 while the GOP gained just
97,871. And, this week, in addition to reclaiming the governorship,
Democrats scored landslide victories in statewide races for
attorney general, treasurer, and auditor.

All of which suggests that voter dissatisfaction with the GOP is not
confined to Fletcher. Even Mitch McConnell, the state's long-serving
Republican senator who is up for reelection in 2008, does not
appear immune. "McConnell is the most scared I've ever seen," says
Al Cross, former chief political writer for Louisville's
Courier-Journal. More surprising still, Hillary Clinton was
statistically even with Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani in a
recent Survey/USA poll. Says Yarmuth, "If you had told me a year
ago that Hillary could beat any Republican in the state,I would
have said you were crazy."

Several factors account for this shift. First, Iraq and the economy
appear to be trumping social issues, particularly for rural and
small-town voters. In a Courier-Journal poll released last month,
60 percent of residents disapproved of Bush's handling of the war.
Moreover, much of Kentucky, like neighboring Ohio and West
Virginia, has not benefited from the national economic recovery of
the last four years. Particularly hard-hit have been white
working-class voters who live in small towns in western and eastern
Kentucky. These voters, especially in the west, were historically
Democrats. But many are also churchgoing Baptists who drifted
toward the GOP during the 1990s over abortion, school prayer, gay
rights, and Monica Lewinsky, as well as Clinton's anti- tobacco
proposals. Now, many of them seem to be returning to the Democratic
fold. Fletcher won coal-producing Warren County by 12 points in
2003. But, this week, Beshear--who is pro-choice and has backed
domestic partner benefits for gays--claimed the county by 10
points. And, statewide, a poll taken a few days before the election
showed Beshear leading Fletcher by an astounding margin of 53 to 35
among "evangelical or born-again Christians."

Democrats have also benefited from changes in the fastest growing
and most prosperous part of Kentucky--an area known as the "Golden
Triangle" that stretches from Louisville east to Frankfort and
Lexington and north to the Cincinnati suburbs. Twenty years ago,
the region was dependably Republican. Louis-ville's Jefferson
County and Lexington's Fayette County, for instance, went for
Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and for George H.W. Bush in 1988.
And the Cincinnati suburbs, peopled by upwardly mobile social
conservatives, were solid GOP territory as well.

The Cincinnati suburbs have remained in the Republican fold, but the
southern part of the triangle appears to be undergoing a dramatic
shift. The area, home to both the University of Louisville and the
University of Kentucky, increasingly resembles a post-industrial
metropolitan area--what Ruy Teixeira and I have called an
"ideopolis." Louisville, the state's largest city, was once
primarily a manufacturing town and still has auto factories, but
five of its top ten employers are now health service companies. The
city has also become a tourist destination and a center for arts
and entertainment, with a surprisingly large and thriving gay
community. (The number of same-sex couples in Louisville rose from
789 in 2000 to 1,769 in 2006.)

Thanks to these changes, the politics of the southern part of the
Golden Triangle look increasingly like the politics of other
post-industrial metro regions:socially liberal, especially on
women's and gay rights; environmentally conscious (I tagged along
with Yarmuth when he spoke at a rally for Louisville's Climate
Action Network); and in favor of government spending on health care
and education. No surprise, then, that last week Beshear easily
carried the three counties that encompass Louisville, Frankfort, and
Lexington.

Kentucky, which is only 7 percent African American, is often
mistakenly grouped with the South, but its political trajectory
most closely resembles that of Ohio, where Democrats won the
governorship and a Senate seat in 2006-- and are now within
striking distance of winning a majority of House seats in 2008.
Ohio's turn toward the Democrats was precipitated partly by a
corrupt Republican administration, but it was sustained by the
movement of post- industrial Columbus into the Democratic column
and by the disenchantment of rural and small-town voters with the
national GOP. It's probably no coincidence that Beshear has much in
common with Ohio governor Ted Strickland. Bothare small-town-born,
moderate Democrats with religious backgrounds.

In contrast to past Democratic governors of Kentucky, Beshear says
he will enthusiastically support the party's presidential nominee
in 2008. Only recently, such a pledge would have mattered little,
since a Democrat probably couldn't have carried Kentucky anyway.
Now, it no longer seems out of the question. Kentucky may be a
realignment state after all. Just not the kind Republicans had in
mind.

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