Politics & Government

Will Donald Trump’s coattails carry Eastern Kentucky Republicans to Frankfort?

Chad Webb thinks Donald Trump is insane, but that won’t stop him from voting for the Republican presidential nominee next month.

“Trump is not great,” said Webb, the owner of Southern Steel Tattoos in downtown Pikeville. “Trump is a narcissist, he’s insane. But Trump is a businessman and this country is in such bad shape that it needs to be run like a business for a minute.”

Webb, who has tattoos climbing up his neck and onto his face, used to be a Democrat. His whole family was. Two years ago, he officially changed his registration to Republican.

“I’ve seen a major shift in the past few years, mostly due to the coal thing,” Webb said. “But I’ve seen it throughout the whole community. I’ve seen everybody switching over.”

With Trump expected to sweep the region that has lost thousands of coal jobs in recent years, Republican leaders in Frankfort have made Eastern Kentucky the front line in their decades-long battle to retake control of the Kentucky House of Representatives. This is the year, they hope, that anger with President Barack Obama over job losses in the coal industry will finally boil over, scorching local Democratic candidates in the process.

“The folks in Eastern Kentucky are very frustrated with Obama and that translates down to Hillary Clinton and that translates down to Democratic House leadership,” said House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown.

To help drive the point home, an out-of-state group called the Republican State Leadership Committee launched a TV ad in Eastern Kentucky Monday attacking House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, for supporting Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. “Greg Stumbo, his values aren’t our values anymore,” the narrator proclaims.

But Democrats, with a tenuous 53-47 majority in the House, are betting that voters in the region will once again draw a line of distinction between national Democrats and their state lawmakers.

“They’ve tried that in the past and it hasn’t worked,” Stumbo said. “People are smarter than that. Most people have never met President Obama that serve in the legislature, nor Hillary Clinton. And I would wager to say that most of my colleagues probably don’t agree with most of the positions that they’ve taken in certain areas like coal.”

The political shift in the mountains of Kentucky, though, is undeniable, even if registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans in counties such as Pike, Breathitt, Knott, Perry and Harlan.

In 2000, all five of those counties voted for Democratic Presidential Candidate Al Gore. Then Harlan and Perry counties voted for President George W. Bush in 2004 and all five voted for U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.

They were slower to embrace Republican candidates for U.S. Senate. Harlan and Perry started voting for Republican senators in 2008 and Pike county joined them in 2012. By 2014, all five counties were voting Republican.

Looking to capitalize on the region’s rightward march, Republicans fielded a candidate in every House race in Eastern Kentucky this year. Traditionally, many of the region’s lawmakers were chosen in the Democratic primary, with no general election required.

Pressing the flesh

While many voters in the area are willing to praise Trump, most of them haven’t tuned in to their state House race yet.

Kayla Keathly, who lives in Pikeville, said she hasn’t had time to research the House candidates in her district, so she remains undecided.

When asked if she thought Trump would have an effect on local races, Keathly was unsure but skeptical.

“A lot of people around here are firm in what they believe in,” Keathly said. “So not necessarily.”

One of the four seats that Republicans hope to pick up in order to take control of the House is the 94th District seat in Letcher and Pike counties held by Democrat Leslie Combs of Pikeville. Combs isn’t seeking re-election, so Democrat Angie Hatton, a Whitesburg lawyer, and Republican Frank Justice, the former mayor of Pikeville, are battling for the seat.

“Frank’s in good shape right now,” said Webb, the tattoo parlor owner.

Despite his prediction that Justice will win, Webb was adamant that Trump’s popularity in the county won’t affect the House race.

“To personally interact with someone, that goes a long way.” Webb said.

It’s different with national politics, he said, since people often vote based on party or ideology because they don’t actually know the candidates.

“These people are figureheads,” Webb said. “They’re not really out pressing the flesh in the public as much.”

Many of Trump’s supporters in Eastern Kentucky, though, have maintained their Democratic Party registration. Who those voters choose to back in state legislative races will likely determine which party controls the Kentucky House next year.

Billy Joe Fields of Pikeville is a registered Democrat who said he will vote for Republicans from top to bottom because he’s fed up with Democrats.

“You’ve got to change somewhere,” said Fields, wearing a blue Trump hat on a recent Thursday morning. “Somebody’s got to do something.”

Christine Baird of Hazard describes herself as a solid Democrat who will only cross party lines in November to vote for Trump. But when asked about her state representative, Democrat Fitz Steele of Hazard, Baird began changing her tune.

“He’s just not doing his job.” Baird said of Steele. “I don’t think he’s making any progress.”

Business as usual

If Republicans were to take control of the House for the first time since 1920, a wave of conservative legislation would uncork in the Capitol, where the GOP has controlled the Senate since 2000 and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is completing his first year in office.

In years past, Stumbo and other House Democratic leaders have bottled up Senate bills dealing with a variety of conservative priorities, such as ending mandatory workplace union dues, allowing charter schools, protecting religious liberties, limiting lawsuits and making abortion more difficult.

Individual voters, though, often don’t see much difference in the Democratic and Republican candidates from which they must choose.

“For me, I think if we got Republicans in Frankfort I don’t think it would change very much,” said Jerry Smith, after getting his hair cut at Dixon’s Barber Shop in Jackson. “I think it would be business as usual either way.”

A registered Democrat who identifies as a conservative, Smith said the difference between Republicans and Democrats in Breathitt County are slim. He said most people are registered Democrats so they can vote for their preferred candidate in the primary, where the real contest often occurs.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 9,000 in the county, which has about 11,000 registered voters.

The consensus at Dixon’s Barber Shop on a sleepy Friday afternoon was that political party doesn’t matter much on the local level.

“People, generally, they will vote for what they know about the individual because the individual doesn’t necessarily represent the machine,” said barber Matt Dixon.

Dixon also considers himself conservative — he’s not a fan of the “liberal agenda” — but he likes Cluster Howard, his Democratic representative. Howard won the 91st House District in Breathitt, Estill, Lee Owsley and a portion of Madison County by 14 votes over Republican incumbent Toby Herald in 2014. This year, Howard and Herald are battling again.

“We have a Democrat now and I like him.” Dixon said. “It doesn’t seem like he got a whole lot done, but it doesn’t look like anyone can get anything done.”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics