Democrats who think they can win simply by highlighting the extremism of Republicans—a popular notion as Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Senator Ted Cruz rank high in Republican presidential polls—would do well to consider the case of Kentucky.
Yes, Kentucky—where cautious Democrats just clashed with extremist Republicans. In an exceptionally low-turnout election, in which two-thirds of eligible voters failed to cast ballots, the Republicans prevailed.
On an off-year election day that was erred on the dismal side for Democrats—they failed in a critical struggle to gain control of the Virginia legislature and suffered setbacks elsewhere—voter anger was evident in much of the country. Frustration with politics as usual benefited issue-focused reformers—Ohio voters banned gerrymandering, Maine voters strengthened their clean-elections law and Seattle voters backed an innovative public-financing initiative. Disdain for status-quo politics also helped proud radicals such as Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who was leading in a race for a second term. But establishment Democrats, who had trouble stirring excitement, suffered as dismal turnout rates skewed key contests toward the right. That was true in Virginia, where Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe failed in a bid to get a legislature he could work with on issues such as expanding Medicaid and implementing gun control. And that was particularly true in Kentucky, a state where history and the narrow calculations of mainstream Democrats suggested the party had significant advantages.
Democrats have dominated Kentucky statehouse politics with only a few exceptions since the end of the Civil War. Even as other border states were following Southern states into the Republican fold, and even as Republicans were winning federal elections in Kentucky, Democrats (some of a populist persuasion, some with strong personal followings) have held their own in state races. The party has lost Kentucky’s governorship in only two elections over the past 70 years. They held it even in 2011, just after the 2010 Republican-wave election that saw the GOP take control of statehouses in far bluer states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan.