Can Hillary Clinton win Kentucky in 2016?

The fact that Bill Clinton is stumping in Kentucky on Tuesday for Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes got me to thinking about the 2016 presidential race. (It doesn't take much.)  And, thinking specifically about this question: If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, is the Bluegrass State actually in play?


Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks Dec. 14, 2013, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

When I first grappled with that idea a few weeks back — someone in my weekly Friday live chat asked about it — I dismissed the idea out of hand. After all, President Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky in 2012 and 41 percent in 2008. Five of the state's six House members and both U.S. Senators are Republicans. But, as I talked to more people — Democrats and Republicans — who know the state well, it became clear that my initial dismissive attitude was somewhat misguided. (What else is new?)

“If she runs in 2016, Hillary Clinton will be very competitive in states like Kentucky," said Larry McCarthy, a Republican media consultant who works with Sen. Mitch McConnell's campaign and has done a number of races in the state. "Even though Kentucky usually votes red in presidential and Senate races, Kentucky has a moderate Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, and the plurality of voters still register Democratic." Added McCarthy:  "Hillary knows these voters — some parts of Arkansas are similar to Kentucky political values. Depending on who the Republican nominee is, that could make Hilary very competitive in Kentucky."

There is, without question, some track record of success for the Clinton brand in Kentucky. "I love Kentucky," Bill Clinton said while campaigning for Lundergan Grimes today. "You've been good to me. Y'all voted for me twice."  He's right — although Clinton never won a majority of the vote in the state.  In 1992, Clinton carried Kentucky with 45 percent as Ross Perot siphoned off 14 percent. In 1996, Clinton's winning margin narrowed to 13,000 votes (out of more than 1.3 million cast) as he took 46 percent to 45 percent for Bob Dole. (Perot, running again, took 9 percent.)  Hillary Clinton took 65 percent of the vote over Barack Obama in the May 20, 2008, presidential primary. (Worth noting: The race was effectively decided for Obama by that point.)

There is some other evidence that the right sort of Democrat can win statewide in Kentucky. The governor's race is a prime example. Republicans have won only one governor's contest — 2003, when then Rep. Ernie Fletcher was elected — in the last 47 years. The Senate is a tougher sell for a Democrat, but even there the party has had victories; Wendell Ford (D) held a Senate seat in the state for more than two decades, and then Rep. Scotty Baesler very narrowly lost an open seat race to then Rep. Jim Bunning in 1998.

Here's the problem for Democrats, and those who make the case that a Hillary candidacy puts Kentucky — and its eight electoral  votes — on the playing field in 2016: The last time Democrats were genuinely competitive in a statewide race for Senate or president was that 1998 race between Bunning and Baesler. (Federal races are different animals than state ones, dictated far more by the national agenda and national party figures than governor's races. That's why a Democrat can get elected governor of Kansas or Wyoming and a Republican can be the governor of Massachusetts.)  

That was 16 years ago.  Politics, Kentucky voters and the Clintons  have changed since then, according to a senior GOP strategist who has spent significant time in Kentucky and pooh-poohs the idea that Hillary could make the Bluegrass State competitive.  "The Clintons of the 1990s were largely considered socially conservative southern Democrats in Kentucky, which is absolutely necessary to carry the western Kentucky Democrats in federal elections," explained the source. "A Democrat cannot win without winning that group decisively.  As Democrats nationally have drifted further from the center on social issues, large blocs of Kentucky Democrats have not."

To put a little data on that point, the 1st district, which includes the city of Paducah, takes in the vast majority of western Kentucky.  Democrats still dominate in terms of voter registration — 284,304 Democrats, 156,505 Republicans — but many of those people are Democrats in name only. They tend to be significantly more conservative than the national Democratic party and identify with Republicans on virtually every federal issue. They simply have never changed their party registration from a time when everyone in the south was a registered Democrat. The 1st gave Obama just 32 percent of the vote in 2012.  McConnell won it with 56 percent in his competitive reelection race against Democrat Bruce Lunsford in 2008. Clinton, on the other hand, carried it by four points in 1996 and nine points in 1992.

The question for Hillary Clinton then is could she reach back to the"I'm one of you" argument that her husband used so successfully in 1992 and 1996, and which, to a large extent, he made Tuesday as a surrogate for Lundergan Grimes? Or, with 20 years of Clinton-ness under the bridge since her husband last carried the state, would Hillary be cast as just the sort of national figure that Kentuckians have moved away from?

"The demographic changes that have turned the state red continue, and voters probably think of Hillary as being more liberal than Bill," said Al Cross, a legendary political journalist in the state and now head of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

I'm with Al. Hillary Clinton is not of the South — geographically or culturally — as her husband was/is. She is far more easily caricatured as a typical Washington liberal than he was/is. And, the state has quite clearly moved against her party at the federal level in recent years.

But  even Republicans acknowledge that Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket would make for a more competitive contest than the state has seen in recent presidential races. "Kentucky really hates Obama, so the 2008 and 2012 results should not be indicative of what 2016 will look like," said one plugged-in Republican familiar with Kentucky politics. "It probably looks a lot more like the statewide races now where Democrats get to 45 [percent] without much of anything but have a lot of trouble getting any further."

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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