08/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's The Matter With Kentucky? (Republicans Want To Know)

Prior to becoming managing editor of Political Base and contributing at The Huffington Post, I spent the previous four years in Kentucky managing Democratic campaigns for governor and Congress, and then founded the political blog During my time in Bluegrass Country, I learned a great deal about Kentucky political history and found myself in the state at the apex of Republican power. But there are some unmistakable signs that the pendulum is swinging back sharply to the Democrats, even in a red state like Kentucky.

Some quick history on Kentucky politics.

Democrats had dominated Kentucky's political power structure for most of the past century, but by the middle of the 1990s, the machine built by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) over the previous 20 years had become a powerful bulldozer, taking out nearly any Democratic hopeful in its way (if McConnell hadn't already managed to convince them to switch parties, which many did).

In November 2003, McConnell managed to get his puppet -- then Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-KY6) -- elected as the state's first Republican governor in 32 years. Fletcher's election followed the Republicans' takeover of the state Senate and now were within reach of the state House. Already, five of the six congressional seats were held by Republicans, as were both U.S. Senate seats.

By the end of 2004, it seemed rather hopeless to be a Kentucky Democrat. Not only did 60 percent of Kentucky voters back a second term for President Bush, but a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage passed by a three to one margin.

During the summer of 2005, Republicans pulled-off another first when more new voters registered as Republicans than Democrats for the first time in modern history. Though a significant majority of the state's electorate were Democrats, new registrants were leaning Republican in ever increasing numbers.

But a funny thing happened towards the end of 2005 -- Kentucky voters started to turn against Republicans, even in this staunchly conservative state.

Some of the revolt was due to the political corruption scandal of McConnell's puppet -- Governor Fletcher. Some was a reaction to the national tide of anger against the Bush administration for the Iraq War and the Republican Culture of Corruption that populated front pages of newspapers across the country. And even with a feckless and corrupt Democratic Party running the show at the time, Kentucky slowly but steadily began to abandon the Republican Party. In the final three months of 2005, Democrats regained the advantage with new voter registrations by a 47% to 42% margin.

By the summer of 2006 with a sour national electorate and a Republican governor under indictment, Kentucky Republicans found themselves defending three congressional House seats. Eventually, they lost one, when John Yarmuth (D) defeated then Rep. Anne Northup (R-KY3), and had to spend more than $7 million to narrowly save freshman Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY4). By year's end, new Kentucky voters had registered as Democrats by a 10-point margin over Republicans during the course of the entire year.

Things got worse for Republicans in 2007 when Kentucky's statewide constitutional offices were up for grabs. The embattled Governor Fletcher -- the first Republican governor in 32 years -- lost his bid for re-election by a staggering 17 points. And despite the GOP's efforts to win back the offices of attorney general, auditor, and treasurer, the Republican challengers lost those races by 21, 18, and 15 points respectively. Punctuating this reversal of fortunes for the GOP, new Kentucky voters in 2007 chose the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a 16-point margin.

It's now 2008, and the Republican death spiral continues.

Amazingly, McConnell finds himself in an epic battle for re-election against businessman Bruce Lunsford (D) and Republicans are fighting to hold on to yet another congressional seat (KY2). Unfortunately, Barack Obama's (D) troubles in rural Kentucky -- particularly in the Appalachia region where he lost the two largest largest counties in the primary by a margins of 91-5 and 91-7 -- most likely keeps this state in the McCain column (though Obama's gap has narrowed considerably). In fact, Kentucky is one of those states that Hillary Clinton (D), no doubt, would have had a solid chance of winning it if she were the nominee.

But maybe the most dramatic example of the Republican decline in Kentucky is the continued trend in voter registration towards the Democratic Party (now run by a competent and politically smart crew). So far in 2008, more new voters are registering as Democrats (57.5%) than ever during the 13 years that the state has maintained monthly statistics under the Motor Voter Law -- and the margin between the two parties (24%) is the widest ever.

Below is the voter registration data pulled from the Kentucky Secretary of State's website since 1995 (the first year that monthly statistics are available) and you can see the pretty remarkable shift away from the Kentucky Republican Party and towards the Democrats in just the past three years.

In 2009, I won't be surprised if we see the book, What's The Matter With Kentucky, in bookstores across the country.


Year Dems% GOP% Other% Dem Advantage (Dem%-GOP%)
2008 57.5% 33.3% 9.2% 24.2
2007 51.8% 35.9% 12.4% 15.9
2006 50.2% 40.2% 9.6% 10.0
2005 45.7% 44.1% 10.2% 1.6
2004 47.2% 41.6% 10.8% 5.6
2003 47.1% 42.0% 10.9% 5.1
2002 51.0% 40.8% 8.2% 10.2
2001 47.5% 42.6% 9.8% 4.9
2000 49.1% 40.6% 10.3% 8.5
1999 50.7% 39.4% 9.8% 11.3
1998 55.3% 37.7% 9.8% 17.6
1997 50.0% 38.4% 11.5% 11.6
1996 45.2% 33.6% 21.2% 11.6
1995 42.0% 33.1% 24.9% 8.9

(Source: Kentucky Secretary of State, Motor Voter Statistics)

Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "What's The Matter With Kentucky?"