Democrats are poised to increase their share of registered voters in Kentucky for the first time in two decades, thanks to a surge in sign-ups and the first slowdown in Republican registrants in years.
Democrats had seen a gradual decline among their ranks for 15 consecutive general elections since a peak in 1989, when 67.6 percent of Kentucky voters were card-carrying Democrats. That proportion shrank to an all-time low of 56.9 percent last fall.
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Since then, Democrats have jumped nearly a half a percentage point to 57.3 percent, as they signed up 30,554 new voters between November 2007 and July 15. Republicans, in that same span, had a net gain of 5,470 registrants and lost voters in some counties, including Fayette.
Election officials and observers attribute the Democratic Party's gain to a combination of buzz over that party's presidential primary and the Democrats taking back the governor's office last fall.
“It's fair to say that both of those factors are at play,” said Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican whose office oversees the state's voting process.
Jennifer Moore, Kentucky's Democratic Party chairwoman, said the party is harnessing fresh enthusiasm from first-time voters, particularly those younger than 25.
“You're seeing a lot of young people getting excited about this election,” she said. “There's some party-switching too, but more so it's because of a youth movement.”
In the months leading up to Kentucky's May 20 primary, the campaigns of top Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and other outside groups launched voter-registration drives that helped attract new Democrats.
Other states, however, are experiencing more pronounced spikes in Democratic registration.
The New York Times reported this week that since 2004, states such as Oregon, Iowa and New Hampshire have seen the percentage of Democrats jump about 4 points while GOP registration declined. Of the 29 states that tracked Republican and Democratic registration figures, only Kentucky, Oklahoma and Louisiana had higher percentages of Republicans today than at the time of the 2004 presidential election.
Republicans were 35.7 percent of Kentucky's voting population when President Bush and Democrat John Kerry squared off four years ago, compared to the GOP's 36.3 percent share this summer. But that figure is a slight drop from 2006 and 2007.
“Over the long haul, it's like the stock market: We're in it for the long-term trend line, not the short-term ebbs and flows,” said Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson. “If you start to see a wave of defections, that's when you get concerned.”
And although the state's growth rate of new GOP voters has slowed, it hasn't gone in reverse.
The state now has 1,043,331 Republicans — the most ever. Democrats have a record 1,647,140 registered voters. An additional 186,079 are independents or give other party designations.
Just a few counties have seen slight Republican slippage in recent months.
Campbell County lost 69 GOP voters since November and saw 421 new Democrats sign up, according to board of elections figures.
“I'd say we were seeing a fourth of those numbers were switching from Republican to Democrat,” said Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass.
In Fayette County, Democrats increased by 2,842 voters to a total of 94,791. That compares to 63,926 Republicans, a net loss of 469 since November.
Grayson said an increase of Democratic voters won't automatically translate into votes for Obama in the Nov. 4 election the way it might in other states.
“This election and its results might help us figure out how much of a national role we are playing: Are we lagging behind the trend in the nation or are we more susceptible to state factors, such as the party affiliation of the governor,” said Grayson. “Kentucky is more conservative than the rest of the country. Just because it's a Democratic year and Obama is slightly ahead in national polls, there's no reason to believe he's ahead in Kentucky. He's probably double digits behind.”
And the state's voters are notorious for splitting their tickets when voting, especially Western Kentucky Democrats who have solidly backed Republicans in federal races, including President Bush, U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election this year.
Moore, however, said the party will focus on convincing registered Democrats to support that party's ticket from top to bottom Nov. 4.
“We're not going to give up on that,” she said.