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This November, Will Kentucky Stop Voting Like It's 1865?

Candidates for governor of Kentucky: Democrat Jack Conway (from left), independent Drew Curtis and Republican Matt Bevin.
Timothy D. Easley
Candidates for governor of Kentucky: Democrat Jack Conway (from left), independent Drew Curtis and Republican Matt Bevin.

When Kentucky voters elect a new governor next week, it will be a test of where white, rural voters' allegiances lie. The Democratic Party has been losing their vote for decades, but in Kentucky, that old coalition has stuck around much longer than in its neighbors to the south.

And in the race to replace retiring Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear this November, Republicans hope to finally win over that portion of the electorate.

To understand current-day political branding in Kentucky, you have to go back to the Civil War.

"A lot of people here, they are of the same political party their parents were — and their parents. And back in the day, shortly after the Civil War, people used to just go around saying, 'Vote the way you shot,' " said Thomas Lawhon, chairman of his local Republican Party in Owen County.

Just as with a lot of people around here, his politics are a lot like his ancestors'.

"My mother was a county chairwoman. My grandmother was a county chairwoman. My great-grandfather was county chairman — at different times. So that covers probably close to a hundred years," he said.

Owen County is a lot like much of the Bluegrass State — it's rural, and it's very conservative and majority Democrat, which makes Lawhon's job a little tricky.

Kentucky-brand Democrats have kept the party in power for decades. There's been only one Republican governor in the past 40 years. But the last time the state's voters backed a Democrat for president was in 1996, when Bill Clinton was on the ballot.

Republican operative Scott Jennings thinks this may be the year Kentucky Republicans take the governor's mansion. "We are trying to see if Republicans can break through and get those rural Democrats to vote Republican in the constitutional races — governor all the way down," he said.

Kentucky's gubernatorial race this year is among Democrat Jack Conway, Republican Matt Bevin and independent Drew Curtis. It's pretty much a tossup.

There are a lot of reasons why Republicans haven't managed to take control of the state yet, said Al Cross, who runs the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky.

"It has the smallest African-American population of any former slave state. Only about 7.5 percent," he said, which means civil rights issues didn't divide conservative Democrats in Kentucky the way they did throughout the rest of the South.

But other social issues have been splintering Kentucky's Democrats lately.

"I believe a Kentucky Democrat is one who has strong conservative fiscal values, but tends to be moderate when it comes to social values and tolerant to a great degree with the exception of a couple of hot button issues," said Herb McKee, a Democratic activist and farmer in Henderson County — another rural county in Kentucky that's also majority Democrat.

Those exceptions, McKee said, are issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. They're also issues that the national Democratic Party has embraced.

"I believe the Republicans have done a great job of driving that wedge into the heads of the Democrats around those two issues," he said.

Those wedge issues have been hurting Kentucky Democrats. Fifteen years ago, Democrats made up two-thirds of the state's registered voters. Now, they're only slightly more than half.

Both Democratic and Republican activists argue, though, a lot of this hinges on turnout. This governor's race has been pretty sleepy.

Back in Owen County, Republican activist Lawhon said his big fear is that "if we have a lackluster election, if people are registered Democrat they will tend somewhat to vote for a Democrat as a default."

Lawhon says besides registering rural Democrats as Republicans, he's working on simply getting Kentuckians to care about the election.

Copyright 2015 Louisville Public Media

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.