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Democrats In Kentucky Work To Rebuild Voter Base After Losing Statehouse


It wasn't just the White House that Republicans won on Election Day. They now control two-thirds of State House chambers across the country. In Kentucky, Republicans finally took over the last state House Democrats had controlled in the South. Until recently, the state was dominated by Democrats.

But in the last few years, socially conservative voters who once backed Democrats have jumped ship for the Republican Party. Now Democrats have to rebuild, especially with rural voters. Here's Kentucky Public Radio's Ryland Barton.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Voters here started picking Republicans at the national level in the 1990s, but Democrats remained competitive at the state level for years. Even today, Democrats still have a majority of registered voters in Kentucky. And they did well in local races until recently.

This year, Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 95 years. Now for the first time in state history, they control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the legislature. And it was voters like Carole Bretschneider who helped turn the state Republican. She was a Democrat until she retired a few years ago from a teaching job in Louisville.

CAROLE BRETSCHNEIDER: I got to really thinking about, you know, is welfare. They're not learning anything. They're all on drugs. There's something wrong and it's been going on so long that there must be a better way.

BARTON: Kentucky Democrats, especially rural ones, are often socially conservative and campaign on anti-abortion policies. But Democrats never brought up those policies for a vote.

AL CROSS: I think people really soured on the Democratic Party.

BARTON: That's Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Democrats here also had a hard time separating their own pro-coal policies from the environmental push of the Obama administration.

CROSS: Its brand in the state has been going bad for a number of years, particularly since Obama was elected. And the Republicans were able to capitalize on that increased Republican feeling.

BARTON: Kentucky's still a very rural state. While Democrats are most densely concentrated in Kentucky's two largest cities - Lexington and Louisville - the party has long maintained strongholds in rural parts of the state, a vestige dating back to the post-Civil War era. Former State Auditor Adam Edelen is a Democrat who lost a bid for re-election last year. He blames the party's collapse on a failure to reach out beyond cities.

ADAM EDELEN: And that's why we've got to have people present making the case in every county, no matter how difficult the challenge. Because ceding a portion of your state or your country to the other party is beneath the dignity of any party that claims to be the party of the people.

BARTON: Edelen recently started an organization called the New Kentucky Project to try and jumpstart the state Democratic Party. He said he's trying to find new leaders who feel marginalized by what he calls Kentucky's hard-right turn.

EDELEN: Kentucky is about to enter into an extraordinarily controversial period of time with a governor who has a hard-right radical mindset and no effective check and balance on that now.

BARTON: Democrats will try to regroup over 2017, when there are no major elections in the state. Edelen admits that the party is pretty much at rock bottom, but said in order to rebuild, the Phoenix requires ashes. For NPR News, I'm Ryland Barton in Frankfort, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryland Barton
Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.