For the first time since the Civil War, a majority of Kentucky voters don’t identify as Democrats as Republicans continue to make gains in voter registrations in the state.
As of June 15, Democrats make up 49.9 percent of registered voters in Kentucky while Republicans make up 41 percent and the rest identify either with a third party or as independents.
Democrats’ roots in Kentucky date back to the Civil War when the party represented pro-slavery, anti-Reconstruction interests (Kentucky was a slave state that did not secede from the Union).
And in the early 20th Century, Kentuckians identified with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and the Wagner Act, which guaranteed the right to organize trade unions.
Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, says that Kentuckians began to split with the Democratic Party on a series of issues in the late 20th Century.
“Democratic registration has been declining since the Democratic Party started losing its identity with rural people and southern people and Kentucky people for that matter,” Cross said.
Cross said Kentuckians began to identify with Republicans on a national scale after the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision banning states from encouraging school prayer, protests over the Vietnam War in 60s and 70s and Republicans’ positioning as the anti-abortion party starting in the 1980s.
Cross said the election of President Barack Obama was particularly bad for Democrats in Kentucky.
“He was the most liberal president in a while, he was the most urban president in a while and he was black,” Cross said.
According to exit polls from the 2008 Democratic primary election in Kentucky, 21 percent of all respondents and 19 percent of whites said race was a factor in who they decided to vote for. Hillary Clinton ended up more than doubling Obama’s votes in Kentucky, winning by 64 percent to 30 percent.
Even though Kentuckians have long shown a preference for Republicans in federal elections, Cross said many conservative voters have still been registered as Democrats in order to have a say in local primary elections still dominated by Democratic candidates.
“It’s just a statement when you go change your registration,” Cross said. “If your family has been registered Democratic since the Civil War, then that is your party of heritage and to change your registration is to step outside the box.”
Even though Republicans have always had fewer registered voters in the state than Democrats, GOP politicians have held both of Kentucky’s seats in the U.S. Senate since 2001 and a majority of the state’s Congressional seats since 1995.
And the party has been making gains farther down the ballot recently.
In 2016, Republicans won control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century. That put the party in charge of both Kentucky legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion for the first time in state history.
Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said voters in the state don’t relate with Democrats at the top of the ticket.
“Voters believe that the Democratic Party has aligned themselves far closer to Washington, California, Massachusetts-style Democrats than they used to,” Watson said.
But Brad Bowman, spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, said backlash to recent policies passed by the legislature will revitalize the party in elections this fall.
“In the past the Kentucky Democratic Party may have not reached out to rural Kentuckians,” Bowman said. “But I would say that the pension issue, the public education issue, these are the things that state Democrats are fighting for and that’s why we’re seeing a movement across the state, especially in rural Kentucky.”
All 100 seats in the state House of Representatives and 17 of the 38 state Senate seats are up for re-election this year.