The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats aren’t dead yet in Kentucky. They just held their last Southern legislative chamber.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

An update: Kentucky Democrats will keep control of the state House in Kentucky, after winning 3 of the 4 special elections for open House seats. Kentucky Democrats even added a seat to their majority. But our point -- that Kentucky has been realigning from Democratic-controlled to Republican -- still remains. Republicans will get another shot at taking control of the House when the entire chamber is up for reelection in November. Below is the original post: 

On Tuesday, several thousand Kentucky voters scattered across the state will determine the fate of one of the last Democratic bulwarks in the south: the Kentucky statehouse. What they decide could also settle a decades-long political realignment in the south from blue to red.

Kentucky Democrats are hanging on to their nearly century-long control of the House by a thread after several of their lawmakers defected from Democrat to Republican this fall. Others took jobs offered to them by Kentucky's new Republican governor. There are currently 50 Democrats and 46 Republicans in the House, and Tuesday's four special elections will determine who controls the chamber for the rest of the year. It could also determine whether the House approves Gov. Matt Bevin's proposed $650 million budget cuts and/or tries to stop him from dismantling Obamacare in the state.

The stakes are higher than regional or even state politics. If Republicans win control of Kentucky's House, Democrats will run exactly zero legislative chambers in the entire south. And really, these past few elections have made clear that Kentucky is no longer Democrats' last stronghold of electoral hope in the south. The state is now better described as one of the last to realign with the United States' decades-old North-South political reality that Republicans rule down south and Democrats up north. After November's elections swept Republicans in control, many offices are turning Republican for the first time in decades.

There have been signs this day of reckoning for Kentucky Democrats was coming for awhile now, said University of Louisville political science professor Jasmine Farrier. Even though President Bill Clinton won the state twice, Republican Mitt Romney won the state in the 2012 presidential election, and GOP candidates triumphed in the 2014 Senate election and the 2015 governor races -- often by wide margins. Kentucky's balance of power finally shifted in November's statewide elections. Statewide offices, which until November were mostly held by Democrats, are now mostly held by Republicans. The GOP wave was led by Bevin, a businessman whose outside appeal and flare have been likened to GOP front-runner Donald Trump, came from behind to become only the second Republican to lead the state in four decades.

It didn't take long after November to watch Democrats' control of the House start to crumble as well.

In December, Democratic state Rep. Jim Gooch switched parties, the second Democrat to turn Republican since the GOP's gains in November. Gooch follows his colleague, Rep. Denny Butler, as party switchers; two Democratic state representatives have resigned to accept appointments from Bevin.

The battle to replace them will likely center on Greenup County in eastern Kentucky, which has a large labor union presence. The two candidates, former state judge Lew Nicholls (D) and county commissioner Tony Quillen (R), are both well known to voters. (If you want more detail on the races, the Associated Press's Adam Bean has a good rundown.) Update: Nicholls won. 

Political realignment forces aside, there's probably some blame for Democrats to go around. Farrier says she thinks all this should be a wakeup call for the Democratic Party, which has struggled to bridge the urban-rural divide in heavily rural states like Kentucky and hasn't really found a way to reach across the cultural divides that separate former southern Democrats with today's northern ones.

"What has the Democratic Party done for poor, conservative Evangelical white people?" Farrier said. "And the answer is not much. On God, guns and gays, poor, white Evangelical conservatives would say the Democratic Party walked away from them, and not the other way around."

It probably also doesn't help that Democrats are having trouble holding onto state offices across the country.

During President Obama's tenure, Republicans clinched more and more control of statehouse and governor's mansions to the point where The Fix's Chris Cillizza writes they have "an absolute stranglehold" on governor's seats (64 percent).

After the November 2014 midterms, Republicans control 69 out of 99 partisan chambers. (Even though the 99th, Nebraska’s, is technically nonpartisan, in practice, Republicans dominate it.)

Republicans say their dominance at the state level is a result of hard work. They've invested heavily in state legislative races this past decade as part of a strategy to control state chambers that will take on congressional redistricting in 2020. It certainly worked for them in 2010.

As a result of much of this, the United States is increasingly divided into two different countries that rarely touch each other, politically or geographically.

Obama's unpopularity outside those East Coast Democratic enclaves has also likely sped up Kentucky's shift from blue to red. A Kentucky Democrat is no Massachusetts Democrat, and Obama isn't particularly liked in some Kentucky Democratic circles.

In announcing his switch to the Republican Party, Rep. Gooch cited the president's "radical agenda" on environmental regulations and gun control as reasons to leave.

The president is arguably in line with the rest of the Democratic Party on these issues, but for more conservative Kentucky Democrats, it may have been a step too far.

"There is this hatred of the president," Farrier said. "It is very real, and it's hard to imagine that it will be easily recoverable."

Even if Democrats keep control of the House on Tuesday, the party's control of Kentucky also likely won't be easily recoverable, at least not until the next major political realignment.