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Behind the Scenes of Kentucky Politics

By Gail Hairston

(Nov. 3, 2015) — Stephen Voss is a frequently quoted analyst of Kentucky politics. In recent years, the University of Kentucky associate professor of political science has been interviewed by some of the most prestigious newspapers and broadcast news organizations in the nation, as well as publishing in equally prominent professional journals.

In recent weeks, as the anticipation of today's election has grown, Voss has been a very busy man, even if you don’t count his hours in the classroom. He describes himself as a quantitative analyst specializing in elections and voting behavior, with a focus on the U.S. South and the politics of race, ethnicity and culture. In a recent interview with UKNow, he shared some of his insight into Election Day 2015 and the nature and history of Kentucky politics.

What sort of voter turnout do you think Kentucky will see today?

Voss: Voter turnout likely will be poor. We have no federal elections pumping money into the contest, so the voter mobilization efforts will be unimpressive. The top-ticket (gubernatorial) race looks close, which usually brings people in, but neither party's standard bearer appears to be lighting the electorate on fire. Any chance independent candidate Drew Curtis was going to be able to pull in a younger electorate may have disappeared once Curtis decided to play the campaign straight rather than serving as comic relief, and because he aimed for the nonpartisan center rather than flanking Conway, he will not be pulling in hardcore voters on the left. About the only remaining electorate he might be able to excite would be the libertarian-leaning voters preferring a candidate who is fiscally conservative but socially liberal, which some kind of formal recognition from the state's Libertarian Party might be able to generate, but even then he's not going to be pulling in huge numbers.

What is your assessment of the Democrats and Republicans active in Kentucky?

Voss: The Republican Party here is going through the same disarray as the GOP nationally. Established leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Hal Rogers are struggling to maintain party discipline despite the dissatisfaction of a party that has been shifting sharply to the right for many years. The problem for these hard-right newcomers such as Matt Bevin is that the typical rank-and-file Republican voters have not shifted with them ideologically, so we're seeing lackluster interest in Bevin from many of the voters he needs. The Democratic Party does not have the same problems nationwide, and even in Kentucky they are finding it easier to hold together, but lurking under the surface is a similar tug of war between the state's traditional Southern Democrats and the activists trying to pull the state party leftward to join that national party. 

How did Kentucky and much of the South go from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican -- at least in national elections -- within a single generation?

Voss: The Reagan presidency set off a gradual realignment of voters in the South, as older Southern white Democrats began to be replaced by a younger generation of Southern white Republicans. The shift began at the presidential level, but it has slowly been filtering down through other federal elections to state elections. Kentucky stands out because the Democratic Party has remained viable at the state level, unlike in much of the Deep South where the shift to the GOP has been even more powerful.

Is it unusual that a state votes Republican in the presidential race, but Democratic on the state ballot?

Voss: No, it's not unusual. For an entire generation, Southern whites managed to maintain a dual partisanship, in which they were Republicans in national elections and Democrats in local elections. The pattern survived longer in Kentucky than in the Deep South, but it remains a familiar pattern.

Is there evidence of the pendulum swinging back?

Voss: Party support does not exhibit a pendulum effect at the state level. Instead, what we see in Kentucky is that the party allegiances change depending on how an election is framed. If social and cultural issues dominate, as they usually do in national elections, then the state's swing voters seem to prefer Republicans. If economic issues dominate, for example because we have Democrats like Steve Beshear who take a moderate stance on social issues, then the swing voters are perfectly happy to embrace Democrats. They have never really been Republican loyalists, despite voting that way for president so overwhelmingly.