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Democrats Losing the Lease on Their Old Kentucky Home

Times Staff Writer

Dethroned Democrat John Black stands on his front porch and gazes ruefully across the street at the City Hall building that had been his life. The longtime public official was voted out of office last month -- just one victim of a Republican fervor that has galloped clear across this horse-breeding state.

“It’s over,” he says softly, pacing in his socks on a cold Kentucky morning. After serving 10 years as mayor and two terms as judge executive, an office similar to county supervisor, Black sighs, “My political career is history, all because I’m a Democrat. And that’s just a crying shame.”

Kentucky is among a handful of states close to the Deep South -- including West Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas -- that Bill Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996, but that George W. Bush won in 2000. Experts predict that the Democrats probably need to win some of them back to capture the presidency in 2004. .

Democrats once held unquestioned sway in Kentucky. But no more. The state recently elected its first GOP governor in 32 years. The GOP also has made gains from the coal fields in the east to the white-fenced horse stables of suburban Lexington. And this political transformation in Kentucky illustrates the hurdles Democrats will face as they battle to win moderate-to-conservative states in next year’s presidential election.

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Politicos like Black now view their national party as a liability. They have a stern word of advice for a Howard Dean or any other Democratic presidential nominee who might come calling to reclaim a state that went for Bush: You’re in trouble.

The state’s 4 million residents -- 91% of them white, many the direct descendants of the original 18th century pioneering landowners -- have rallied behind the Republican agenda of tax cuts, a well-funded military and increased domestic security.

Meanwhile, local Democrats say they have been hurt by the positions their national leaders take on divisive social issues, such as support for same-sex unions and abortion rights.

“The Republicans are strong in many of these states and becoming increasingly so,” said Hastings Wyman, editor of a bimonthly newsletter, Southern Political Report. “These places are conservative on social issues, hawkish on foreign affairs -- and that plays into Republican hands.”

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Even loyal Kentucky Democrats predict that Dean, the former Vermont governor broad-brushed by Republicans as an East Coast liberal, would turn off voters here if he emerges as the party’s nominee. They say more moderate candidates, such as retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark or Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, would fare better, but still lose to Bush.

“George Bush is more popular in Kentucky than any state outside Texas,” said Paul Blanchard, formerly of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University. “Nothing he does with the economy or in Iraq seems to diminish his popularity here.”

In Gratz, tobacco farmer Ricky Fitzgerald gives voice to such attitudes, saying the Republicans speak his mind. “I’ll be a Bush man until the cows come home. I was so sick of Clinton and the Democrats who ride that same donkey.”

Kentucky’s religious bent also seemingly works against the Democrats. The state ranks eighth nationally in the number of churches per person, with 18 for every 10,000 residents. And surveys in recent years have shown that church attendance has become an indicator of voting preferences -- those who go to services at least once a week are far more likely to back Bush than those who rarely attend.

In 1992, Clinton was able to win in Kentucky by capitalizing on a faltering national economy. He won it again in 1996, but by a narrower margin.

“Clinton talked about a middle-class tax cut and presented himself as a political moderate,” said Wyman. “He was a Southern candidate with a Southern running mate. That played well in Kentucky and elsewhere in the region.”

But Kentucky residents soured on Clinton and, more recently, Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton after well-publicized sex scandals. “The Democrats have worn out their welcome,” said La Grange resident Meredith Recktenwald. “It started with Clinton and continued right on through ex-Gov. Patton.”

Patton’s last year in office was clouded by controversy after he first denied, then acknowledged, an affair with a Kentucky businesswoman.

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A Democratic fiefdom for roughly 100 years after the Civil War, Kentucky became more receptive to the GOP in presidential elections and some Senate and House races in the 1960s, when the national Democratic Party shifted to the left. But for the most part, state and local offices remained solidly Democratic.

Registered Democrats, in fact, still outnumber Republicans in the state 60% to 40%. But now, many of those Democrats routinely cross party lines when casting their ballot.

“People here didn’t leave the Democrats -- the party deserted the people of Kentucky,” said Paducah Mayor William F. Paxton, a registered Democrat who regularly votes for Republican presidential candidates and in November voted for the new Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher. “With their gay rights and abortions, they just became too darned liberal.”

Kentucky state Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, another Democrat, plans to disassociate himself from the national party during his run for reelection next year. “The Democrats are beginning to look like an extremist fringe group,” he said. “There’s no clear message being delivered -- not here and not on the national level.”

Shaughnessy is now in the minority in the state Senate, something that would have been hard to imagine in 1988, when Democrats controlled the chamber by nearly a 5-to-1 margin. Republicans now outnumber the Democrats 22 to 16. The GOP took over the chamber in 1999, when two state senators switched parties to join the Republicans.

Democrats still enjoy a comfortable majority, 65 to 35, in the state House. But with help from their new governor, Republicans are confident they can chip away at that margin.

At the federal level, the picture looks bleak for Kentucky Democrats. The state’s two senators and five of its six congressmen are Republicans.

Rep. Ken Lucas, the sole Democrat, recently decided not to run for reelection. If they lose that seat next year, Kentucky Democrats will have no voice whatsoever in the nation’s capital -- ending an era that has seen the state elect at least one Democrat every year since 1828.

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Running for Lucas’ seat is Democrat Nick Clooney, a newspaper columnist and father of actor George Clooney. The elder Clooney is already being skewered for his family’s leftist politics. Carped one state Republican voter in an Internet political chat room: “Given how far left George Looney is, I’m betting Daddy is also a kooky liberal.”

On the national front, Kentucky Republicans claim Dean is so far out of line with voters here that he’d lose a “whisper campaign” on just his support of civil unions for gay couples.

“The Democrats’ Hollywood left-wing party isn’t registering a geehaw with our voters,” said Ellen Williams, chairwoman of the Kentucky Republican Party. “The only way a Howard Dean could win votes here is not to speak -- to just smile and shake hands. The moment he opens his mouth, he loses voters.”

One voter Dean himself says the Democrats have lost is the middle-class Southern white male, a defection party loyalists acknowledge could loom large in next year’s presidential race.

“Howard Dean was right -- we need that good ol’ boy in the pickup truck. Especially in Kentucky,” Shaughnessy said. “Because that guy lives in every county across this state. The Democratic Party used to be his party, but not anymore. And we’ve got to find a way to get him back.”

The Democrats haven’t lost John Black -- not yet. Since leaving office, he’s tried selling real estate. But he’s not happy. “I want to stay in public service, but it seems the only way to do that is to change parties,” he said.

“People tell me to move to another county, but the way I see it there is no place to go. They’re all turning Republican.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

States swayed by Bush in 2000

George W. Bush won the presidency by one of the slimmest electoral vote margins in U.S. history, 271-266.* States that Bill Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996 but Bush won in 2000 could be crucial to Democratic hopes of capturing the White House in November. Here are those states, along with their electoral votes:

Arkansas... 6

Kentucky... 8

Louisiana... 9

Missouri... 11

Nevada... 5

New Hampshire... 4

Ohio... 20

Tennessee... 11

West Virginia... 5

*One Al Gore elector did not vote.

Source: Times researcher Susannah Rosenblatt

Los Angeles Times


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