Having spent more than four years in Kentucky politics, I can say quite definitively that it's a fascinatingly complicated state when it comes to politics.
From one perspective, the state looks as red as they get. Its senior senator is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and they gave John McCain (R) a 16-point victory over President Obama. They also backed Bush by 20 points in 2004 and 15 points in 2000. The state is, arguably, as hostile to gay rights as any state in the union, and some Democrats in the state legislature are far to the right of Republicans in many other states.
Yet, the state has easily re-elected two Democratic congressmen (Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth) in districts which were in Republican hands just a few years ago. Democrats also dominate the most important statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and auditor) and seem quite likely to throw Sen. Jim Bunning (R) out of office next year. They also voted for Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996.
But one quirky thing about Kentucky is that while the state lurched sharply to the right beginning in the mid-1990s, Democrats dominated Republicans in voter registration by a wide margin.
There are many hypotheses for this oddity. Some will say that since Democrats continued to hold local office in the counties, many voters remained Democratic in registration in order to be able to vote in those elections. Some argue that since Democrats have dominated the governor's mansion for decades that it was important to be a registered Democrat in order to land a state job. Others will say that these voters continue to cling to an old version of the Democratic Party, not the current model. Who knows?
But the voter Democrats' voter registration advantage began to erode beginning around 1995 and continuing through 2005. Here's the figures from the KY Secretary of State's office on the percent of new Kentucky voters who chose to register as members of the Republican Party:
New KY Voters Registering As Republican
As you can see, the percentage of new Republican Party voters in Kentucky rose almost in a straight upward line during this 11-year run. Conversely, those registering as Democrats dropped from a high of 58 percent in 1998 to just 45 percent in 2005. In fact, by the end of 2004, more new Kentucky voters were -- for the first time in generations -- choosing the GOP over the Democratic Party.
But all that reversed course very abruptly after 2005:
2005: Dems 45%, GOP 44%
2006: Dems 50%, GOP 40%
2007: Dems 52%, GOP 36%
2008: Dems 55%, GOP 34%
By the end of last year, new Republican registration was at a 12-year low, while new Democratic registration hit a 10-year high. Things have not gotten much better for the GOP during the first two months of 2009. Currently, Democrats hold a 57-36 registration advantage among all Kentucky voters, not just the new ones.
For me, this is Sen. Jim Bunning's biggest problem right now as he trails by 7 to 14 points in his hopes for re-election next year.
While Kentucky voters have a love/hate relationship with national Democrats (mostly hate), the same can't be said for how they feel about their Kentucky-bred Democrats. Bunning was elected to the Senate in 1998, during the ascendancy of the KY GOP (and during the post-Monica Lewinsky years of the Clinton administration). He was re-elected to the Senate in 2004 by just one point at the peak of GOP power (new GOP voters outnumbered Dems for the very first time in November 2004), and has struggled ever since.
But since Bunning's one-point re-election victory in 2004, Kentucky has seen a really remarkable shift away from the Republican Party and towards the Democrats. At the end of 2004, the GOP caught Dems in new voter registration. But by October 2008, new Democratic voters had a staggering 35-point advantage over the GOP (62-27). While that proved to be of little help to Obama, it nearly knocked the previously invincible McConnell from his seat.
So, as we watch the Kentucky Senate race very closely, keep this lesson in mind. The national pundits usually fail badly at understanding the dynamics of Kentucky politics. The most common mistake is to compare national Democrats with Kentucky Democrats.
Obama may never come close to carrying Kentucky, but Bunning won't be running against an "outsider". He'll be running against another Kentuckian (likely either Attorney General Jack Conway or Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo [my money is on Conway, big time]), and that is precisely why Bunning is toast next year and why McConnell is doing everything he can to force him out and run someone else (and here)...
Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "Kentuckians Continue To Flee The GOP, And Why Sen. Jim Bunning Is Toast...."