Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: This week showed Kentucky at odds with nation's changing electorate

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

America zigged and Kentucky zagged. The majority of the nation's voters rejected right-wing politics in last Tuesday's election, but Kentuckians outside of Lexington and Louisville embraced them all the more.

Big swings have become the norm in national elections, because neither party has succeeded in solving America's problems on its own. But deeper forces may have been at work this time.

Much of the post-election analysis has focused on demographic shifts that go against the hard conservative turn the Republican Party has taken in recent years.

Young people, women and minorities voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama's economic policies over those of challenger Mitt Romney, and they rejected socially conservative candidates for the U.S. Senate.

Republicans' run to the right has been marked by increasingly rigid ideology on both economic and social issues. But analysts of all stripes warn that without more tolerance of diversity — including intellectual diversity — the GOP could become the incredible shrinking party of old, white men.

Demographics are destiny, and it will be interesting to see how Republicans cope with these demographic trends. As it does, Kentucky will be in the spotlight, because the state's two high-profile U.S. senators now seem to be caught between Barack and a hard place.

Voters in many states signaled that they have grown tired of Tea Party radicals. Paul won election in Kentucky two years ago as a Tea Party idol and immediately started preening like a future presidential candidate. Are his 15 minutes of fame about up?

By re-electing Obama and giving Democrats more seats in the Senate, voters rejected Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's relentless obstructionism. He went to great lengths over the past four years to oppose the president on just about everything.

While other Republican leaders were making conciliatory statements after the election, McConnell, the anti-Henry Clay, struck his usual pose against compromise. He indicated he will continue to fight against raising historically low income taxes on America's richest people to lower the nation's budget deficit, even though opinion polls show overwhelming public support for it.

In an especially cynical comment, McConnell called on Obama to "move to the political center." McConnell is nowhere near the political center himself, and the Tea Party wing of his party would need a telescope to even see it.

Kentucky and other Southern states have played a big role in supporting the Republican party's anti-tax, anti-government ideology. But that is deeply ironic when you look at the statistics, said Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for Kentucky's Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and the guru of Kentucky demographic trends.

Kentucky and other Republican-leaning "red" states tend to receive much more federal assistance than they contribute in taxes, while the reverse is true of Democrat-leaning "blue" states.

In Kentucky, Crouch noted, the largest per-capita federal transfer payments go to poor, rural counties that vote Republican.

Kentucky and other states whose populations are largely white, aging, rural and traditionally male-dominated will increasingly be overshadowed, both politically and economically, unless and until they catch up to these broader demographic trends, Crouch said.

"We need to be more supportive of immigration and open to diversity," he said of Kentuckians. "When I drive around Kentucky, I see a lot of Confederate flags."

Immigrants and minorities could play an important role in keeping the state's small towns and rural areas vibrant as the white population ages and shrinks from declining birth rates.

But Kentucky already is becoming more diverse than many people realize, Crouch said. The majority of Kentucky's population growth since 2000 — and all of it under the age of 18 — has been among minorities, especially Hispanics.

As immigrant, minority and urban populations grow in Kentucky, voting patterns are likely to become less Republican, unless that party moves more to the political center. The same is true as women gain more economic and political clout in the state.

"Blue-collar men are an endangered species," Crouch said. "We're seeing an economy more and more that is favoring female employment."

Kentucky's future, both economically and politically, will depend not only on the availability of jobs, but whether those jobs pay enough to support middle-class families, Crouch thinks. And those families are bound to become more diverse, like it or not.