To say that the Senate election in Kentucky has been getting attention recently would be an understatement. Overshadowed in the media firestorm surrounding the Paul/Maddow interview is the claim by Jack Conway and DNC chairman Tim Kaine that the Democratic party has a strong chance of taking the seat because both Jack Conway and his opponent, Lt. Gov. Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, received more votes than Rand Paul. To those unfamiliar with Kentucky politics, a cursory glance at the state’s voter registration would seem to support this view. Kentucky has approximately 1.6 million registered Democrats, and only 1 million registered Republicans.
Those familiar with recent Kentucky electoral history know better. Despite such a disparity in registration numbers, the Democratic Party has not won a statewide election for a federal office since Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996 by 13,331 votes. Kentucky hasn’t elected a Senator from the Democratic Party since the immensely popular Wendell Ford was elected to his final term in 1992.
Obviously, there are a lot of registered Democrats in the state who either sit out or vote Republican in federal elections in Kentucky. Logically, the next questions would be “Why do voters who vote Republican register as Democrats?” and “What causes registered Democrats to vote Republican?” These questions suggest that there are two “cases” of registered Democrats who vote Republican in these elections – voters who would in other situations register as Republicans, but due to some circumstance choose to register Democrat; and voters who would ordinarily vote Democrat but due to some circumstance choose to vote Republican.
The answer to the first question is one of local politics and the Governorship. Kentucky has 120 (!) counties, and for years in many of the less populated primaries a number of local elections have effectively been decided in the Democratic primary. Additionally, there is frequently only one Republican up for a particular seat in local elections, giving the voter very little choice in local primaries if they choose to register Republican. This obviously does not hold true in all cases, but it cannot be discounted as a factor. As to the Governorship, Kentucky has had a Democratic Governor 80% of the time in the last 100 years, and has elected only one Republican to the office since Louie B. Nunn won in 1967. In any event, there are obviously some practical reasons to register as a Democrat regardless of your political ideology.
The answer to the second question above has more to do with where the state is ideologically. Two of Kentucky’s six congressmen are Democrats, but only one (John Yarmuth – 3rd district) may be considered a true progressive. Ben Chandler (6th district) could potentially run as a “moderate” Republican in another state. Kentucky simply isn’t particularly liberal (especially on social issues), and candidates who run a campaign with a liberal platform will find themselves at odds with many Kentucky voters.
To summarize, I submit that Kentucky has four major classes of voters: Republicans, Progressive Democrats, Circumstantial Democrats, and Blue Dog Democrats. The first two categories will likely vote along party lines. It is the third and fourth categories that are going to be the key to the 2010 Kentucky Senate election (and frankly are key in any statewide election in the state). To put this in the context of the primary, Republicans voted either for Paul or Grayson (obviously), Progressives almost certainly voted for Conway, and Blue Dog and Circumstantial Democrats probably voted in large part for Mongiardo (Circumstantial Democrats because he wasn’t Jack Conway, and Blue Dog Democrats because Mongiardo was their candidate of choice).
What does this mean for Rand Paul and Jack Conway? Well, Paul should be focused on staying on his primary campaign’s message – term limits, earmark reform, balanced budgets, and the “Read the Bills” Act. Jack Conway is going to need to convince undecided voters that Paul is extreme, or that he (Conway) isn’t liberal. While Paul should be considered the favorite at this point, Conway is a charismatic and formidable opponent. Paul cannot afford to let Conway drive the media dialogue in-state.
In upcoming posts, I’ll examine whether the national media attention has affected Paul’s chances (I would have done that in this post, but the Courier-Journal is supposed to be releasing a new poll this weekend and I’d like to include those results). I’ll also provide some amateur electoral analysis for this race based on previous Kentucky races.
Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, John Flannery, hails from Kentucky and (in addition to his other future commentary) will be providing Liberty Maven readers with insight and analysis of the general election between Republican candidate Rand Paul and Democratic candidate Jack Conway.