Kentucky picked presidential loser for first time since 1960

For the first time since the nation elected Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960, Kentucky failed to vote for the winning candidate for president.

Instead of siding with Democrat Barack Obama, Kentucky — where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans — gave its eight electoral votes to Republican John McCain, who won a 17-point victory and all but eight counties in the Bluegrass State.

Tuesday's election not only broke Kentucky's streak of being a bellwether state in presidential elections, but it also reinforced the state's gradual shift to the right side of the nation's political spectrum, observers said.

It's taken some time, but Kentucky is adapting to the Southern trends of politics — that is, being more Republican and conservative, said state historian James C. Klotter, who teaches at Georgetown College.

In fact, over the past three elections, Kentucky voting performance in presidential races has been similar to that of Tennessee and other southern states, as opposed to the state's Midwestern neighbors of Ohio and Indiana, both of which went for Obama on Tuesday.

Kentucky always has been a conservative state but sometimes has taken action contradictory to conservative politics, Klotter said. He noted that Kentucky was among the first states to adopt voting for women, elect a woman to Congress (1920s) and choose a female governor (1983).

In the past 30 years or so, Kentucky didn't align with conservative Republicans that much, primarily because of backlash from Watergate in the early 1970s and the lack of strong Republican candidates for governors in recent years, he said.

But with Republican leaders in several key offices since 1984, the state has drifted more and more toward GOP politics, Klotter said.

"I can't say yet that the Republican Party has fully made that transition, but it's going that way," he said.

Klotter's observation was underscored in a news release Wednesday from the Lexington-based conservative group, The Family Foundation. It was titled "Kentucky goes against the flow of the rest of the country on Election Day."

In it, Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the group, said "despite the fact that the liberal Democrats won the presidency yesterday, that didn't stop voters in Kentucky from voting conservative."

But even Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said Kentucky hasn't turned the corner to become a lock for the GOP in presidential elections.

"I don't think so. I think it is a competitive two-party system," he said. "To tell you the truth, I think if Obama had come in here and really competed, I think he would have come closer. But I guess they just decided it was not worth the expenditure."

Race also was a factor in the presidential contest in Kentucky, several political scientists said.

Transylvania University political science professor Don Dugi said racial prejudices might have manifested themselves "implicitly" in the state's presidential results.

"I don't think we saw many examples of explicit racism here, but racism is here," he said.

A Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll in October showed that 12 percent of respondents said they were less likely to vote for Obama, who is biracial, because of his skin color.

"Kentucky is a very conservative state that has much work to do on embracing diversity," said Saundra Ardrey, head of Western Kentucky University's political science department.

Ardrey, an African-American from North Carolina who has been in Kentucky since 1988, said Obama could make inroads with Kentuckians by focusing his efforts on helping poor areas of the country, whether they are inner cities or job-starved hollows of Appalachia.

"The president sets the tone," she said. "There will be some people who will never like him because of his skin color, but I think many people here would warm up to him if he visited."

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Versailles Democrat who endorsed Obama last spring, said he figured Obama would lose the state but hoped it would be by a closer margin. He said Kentuckians were clearly unsure of Obama, and that McCain's national campaign messages seemed to play on that uncertainty.

"I think a lot of the reason they voted the other way was the politics of it preyed on the fears of the unknown," he said. "I think he can go a long way toward easing Kentucky's fears by governing from the middle. If they see politics that are common-sense policies, I think they'll ultimately come around and embrace him."

Chandler and other Democrats say they don't think Kentuckians have marginalized themselves with the incoming Obama administration.

"Barack Obama's theme in this campaign is a message of unifying America and ensuring every American has a chance to participate," said Democratic state Auditor Crit Luallen. "I don't think he will punish electoral areas that didn't support him."