By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Nationally, Democrats are giddy and Republicans chastened. But in Kentucky, the reverse is true.
While Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama won a surprisingly easy re-election and his party, thought to be in danger of losing control of the U.S. Senate, actually picked up two seats, Kentucky Democrats are demoralized by Ben Chandler’s loss to Republican Andy Barr in the 6th Congressional District.
Kentucky Democrats also lost yet another seat in the state Senate where Republicans continue to consolidate power and Democrats saw their majority in the House reduced by four seats.
Why are the fortunes of the two parties so different in Kentucky?
The easy answer is Obama and the changing demographic make-up of the United States, a demographic change which benefits Democrats nationally but hasn’t reached into conservative Kentucky. Obama’s campaign is credited with specifically and effectively targeting demographic groups like blacks, Hispanics and women and getting them to the polls in support of their candidate.
Kentucky is more rural, more white and less diverse. So while national Republicans look at ways to extend their appeal to those non-white, non-male groups, the traditional Republican appeal to conservative social values continues to work in Kentucky.
The commonwealth remains enamored of a coal industry those outside the coal region view as dirty and unhealthy and Kentucky voters resist the idea of the country’s first African-American president.
Democratic Speaker of the state House Greg Stumbo blamed Obama for his party’s loss of four House seats: “The voters didn’t care much for President Obama.” He also said Barr’s exploitation of the coal issue hurt Chandler.
Joey Pendleton, the Democratic state Senator who lost his seat, blamed Obama, though there were whispers personal issues may have determined his fate.
“I just got caught up in the sway of Obama and Romney,” Pendleton said this week. “It was a big time factor down there (in his western Kentucky district).”
In 2008 when other Kentucky Democrats supported Hillary Clinton for their party’s nomination, Chandler publicly endorsed Obama at a press conference in Louisville and many Kentucky voters, inside and outside of the 6th District, never forgot.
That hurt him said Terry McBrayer, a former Chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and a delegate to every Democratic National Convention since 1968.
“I thought Chandler made a mistake at the time when he endorsed Obama rather than Hillary,” McBrayer said. “And he went outside the district to do it. That made a whole lot of Democrats in the district unhappy.”
Barr made Obama and a controversial Chandler vote on an energy bill opposed by coal companies the major themes in his attacks on Chandler. After his loss, Chandler conceded Obama hurt his chances for another term
“I’m afraid the president was just a little too heavy for us in some of the rural counties,” Chandler said.
Ellen Williams, a former Republican Party of Kentucky chairwoman, agreed Obama and his administration’s perceived “war on coal” hurt Chandler, but she gave more credit to Barr for a disciplined, smart campaign.
“Andy was very focused and he was believable,” Williams said. “He believes what he’s saying and you (as a voter) believe him when he says it.”
Chandler, she said, “couldn’t have it both ways,” supporting Obama and environmental regulation in Washington while trying to distance himself from both back home in Kentucky.
McBrayer said Chandler should have emulated some of the Democrats in other states who took advantage of comments from Republican candidates on women’s issues of health and reproductive issues such as abortion. Republican Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, originally seen as almost sure Republican wins, made controversial comments on abortion and lost.
For a time, Barr refused to answer questions about whether he makes any exception to his opposition to abortion. Ultimately, Barr said he had only one exception – the life of the mother, excluding rape and incest.
But Chandler was so boxed in on Obama and coal, according to Joe Gershtenson, Professor of Government at Eastern Kentucky University, that emphasizing women’s issues probably wouldn’t have helped.
“The Barr campaign probably then would have had an even easier time linking Chandler to Obama and this would have worked against Chandler even if some voters, particularly women, regarded Barr’s stances on women’s issues as extreme,” he said.
But all of that still leaves the question of why Kentucky — a poor state which disproportionately benefits from programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — continues to move to the right rather than embracing traditional Democratic support for those programs.
“That’s a phenomenon I’ve never been able to explain,” McBrayer said. “People in Kentucky have always had an attitude that you look after your own interest and you’re not your brother’s keeper. But at the same time, they are voting against their own self-interest in so many other ways.”
Gershtenson called it “the million dollar question.” A lot of Kentuckians do not realize “how much Kentucky actually benefits from federal government programs, that the state receives considerably more money than it sends to D.C.”
Kentucky is made up of a lot of the people Romney dismissively called “the 47 percent” who are dependent on government programs and would not vote for him. Except in Kentucky, they did.
Gershtenson said even some who understand the benefit Kentucky receives from federal safety net programs nonetheless resent federal “control.” That’s also part of Kentuckians’ objections to regulations like environmental controls on mining, he said.
And social issues trump economic issues for some Kentucky voters.
“Obama’s stance on gay marriage is an example,” Gershtenson said. “More generally, social issues tend to favor Republicans in Kentucky.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.