Kentucky is a state that in many ways remains close to its beginnings. This is, literally, a Jeffersonian commonwealth: It is one of four commonwealths (the others are Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) and when the first settlers came here, in the years Thomas Jefferson was writing his Notes on Virginia, it was part of Virginia. Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792, when Jefferson was secretary of state; when Jefferson was aroused at the Federalists’ anti-sedition acts, he ghostwrote the Kentucky Resolutions in 1798. Kentucky’s largest county is named after Jefferson and what has long been its largest city after the monarch to whom he was credentialed as ambassador to France, Louis XVI. To this day, Kentucky still has a constitution informed by a Jeffersonian jealousy of power. Its one-term limit on governors was raised to two only in 1995; it limited its state legislature to one 60-day session every two years until 2001, so that much important business was done in special sessions; every governor must swear that he or she has not participated in a duel (remember what Jefferson thought of Aaron Burr). Kentucky for many long years favored the Democratic Party, which can trace its ancestry at least tenuously back to Jefferson. But here too there has been change recently. George W. Bush carried Kentucky twice, after it was carried twice, by diminishing margins, by William Jefferson Clinton. Both of Kentucky’s senators and four of its six House members are Republicans; a Republican was elected governor in 2003, for the first time since 1967, and Republicans have had a majority in the state Senate since 1999.
The agrarian Jefferson would approve of Kentucky’s demography, which is still quite rural, with well under half its population in the big metropolitan areas of Louisville, Lexington and the Northern Kentucky counties across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. And the tobacco planters who once presided over what one historian called ‘‘the alcoholic republic’’ might not entirely disapprove of a Kentucky economy that remained for years heavily dependent on century-old industries such as whiskey (Bourbon County, where the beverage was invented in the 18th century, is in Kentucky; its county seat is Paris), tobacco (Kentucky is the nation’s number two producer after North Carolina, and it has the largest number of tobacco farms) and coal. But change is coming here too. Kentucky has ranked number one in percentage of smokers, but the city-county council voted a ban on smoking in public places in Lexington, the site of Kentucky’s burley market, and the buyout of already dwindling tobacco quotas voted by Congress in 2004 will likely result in the end of tobacco farming in the Appalachian mountains and a shift of production to central and western Kentucky. Louisville’s Brown & Williamson Tobacco was absorbed by R. J. Reynolds, based in North Carolina. Employment is sharply down in coal and tobacco, and Kentucky has big plants producing appliances, Toyotas, Ford trucks and Lexmark printers; it also has big companies that specialize in things not traditionally Kentuckian, such as Humana health services and Ashland Oil. Still, this is an economy that did not partake in much of the bounteous growth of the past two decades.
Many of the buildings here are old: The small-town 19th century courthouses, the cabins in the coal mining Appalachians, the unpainted houses in the soggy lowlands beneath the levees by the Mississippi River. Kentucky is the home of some of the nation’s oldest traditions, from bourbon to bluegrass music to religious revivals (the Disciples of Christ got their start in the enormous revival at Cane Ridge in 1801); it was the home of the inventor of Mother’s Day in 1887 and a Louisville restaurant that claims credit for inventing the cheeseburger. Some things have changed. Satellite dishes and four-lane highways have brought modern civilization into hollows and lowland farms that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity within living memory and farmers have begun to diversify their crops; Eastern Kentucky farmers raise goats for meat production and the state touts its grape vineyards and fruit orchards. But people in this state still have a strong attachment to place and family; the continuity is real. Kentucky’s population has grown just 42% over the past 50 years, while the nation’s almost doubled; few outsiders have moved in, though the number increased since 1990, so today’s Kentuckians are mostly descendants of settlers who poured over the mountains in the 40 years after Daniel Boone made his way through the Cumberland Gap in 1775, when Kentucky’s population rose from 73,000 in the Census of 1790 to 564,000 in 1820.
There has long been hearty, though lopsided, political competition here, with most of the 120 counties voting today as they did in the Civil War era. The eastern mountains were pro-Union and remain Republican, except for counties where coal miners were organized by the United Mine Workers in the 1930s; the Bluegrass region and the western end of the state were slaveholding territory and Democratic, though they have shifted to Republicans in the last decade. Louisville, with many German immigrants, was an anti-slavery town, and for years flirted with Republicans; Jefferson County recently has voted narrowly Democratic, though by margins small enough to be offset by Republican margins in fast-growing suburban Oldham and Bullitt Counties. For years, all this meant Democratic party control, with the real battle in the primary. For nearly half a century there was almost a two-party system within the dominant party, with factions going back to the 1938 primary when Senate Majority Leader (and later Vice President) Alben Barkley was challenged by Governor (and later Senator and baseball commissioner) “Happy” Chandler. Barkley’s faction was later led by Governor (1959–63) Bert Combs and by Governor (1971–74) and Senator (1974–99) Wendell Ford. But as former Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Al Cross noted, faction gave way to money, with rich Democrats elected governor frequently—John Y. Brown Jr. in 1979, Wallace Wilkinson in 1987, Brereton Jones in 1991. Partisan competition since has been sharper. Democrat Paul Patton was only narrowly elected in 1995 and in 2003; when the term-limited Patton was tarred by scandal, Republican Ernie Fletcher beat Attorney General (now Congressman) Ben Chandler, the grandson of “Happy” Chandler, by a 55%-45% margin.
The change has been most pronounced in congressional elections. Much of this has been the work of Senator Mitch McConnell, first elected in 1984. McConnell helped line up candidates who carried three formerly Democratic congressional districts in 1994 and 1996; he provided key support for Senator Jim Bunning’s 6,766-vote win in 1998 and helped capture the 6th District vacated by Bunning’s opponent that year as well. In July and August 1999 party switches gave Republicans a 20–18 margin in the state Senate, where they were outnumbered 30–8 in 1990. More recently there has been a shift in the other direction. Chandler, after losing to Fletcher in 2003, won his House seat in a 2004 special election, and in 2006 Democrat John Yarmuth ousted Republican Anne Northup in the Jefferson County seat that was the state’s only district to vote for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Republicans now have a 21–16–1 margin in the state Senate, but Democrats in 2006 raised their majority in the state House to 61–39.