Ky. Voices: Election firmed up Southern strategy's hold on Kentucky

David Hawpe is the former editorial director of the Courier-Journal.
David Hawpe is the former editorial director of the Courier-Journal.

The talk around Whitesburg was not about the presidential election. Everybody expected Letcher County to go big for Mitt Romney, despite the county's three-to-one Democratic edge in voter registration. Instead of politics, the buzz was about who would be the first to sell beer — Rite Aid, Food City or East Kentucky Tobacco and Beer.

In much of Kentucky, the presidential ballot was a non-issue. The outcome was foreordained. And sure enough, once dust settled in the precinct houses, Kentucky was even more deeply entrenched among the red states. Barack Obama had been humiliated again in Kentucky.

The nation rejected Mitch McConnell's top priority, which was making Barack Obama a one-term president, and stopped his push to become Senate majority leader. But in Kentucky, his leadership holds.

Should we rejoice in remaining McConnell Country and becoming part of the national GOP's reliably red base, at least in federal elections? After all, aren't red states full of the Good People, as opposed to the liberal apostates and tax-happy wastrels in the Northeast and Upper Midwest and on the West Coast? Well, let's look at the differences between red and blue states, as outlined recently by Southern California writer Thomas D. Elias (tdelias@aol.com):

■ Folks in blue states generally are better educated. Massachusetts, perhaps the bluest of the blue, tops the list based on the portion of adults with a bachelor's degree (53.4 percent), followed by Minnesota, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Iowa and Maryland. At the bottom you find red states, including Alaska (26.6 percent), Texas (32.2 percent) and Arizona (33 percent).

■ Blue-state residents also are more economically successful. Based on Census data, the poorest state is Mississippi (22.4 percent of residents under the federally set poverty level), and you don't get redder than Mississippi. After the Magnolia State, it's Alabama and Kentucky (both 19 percent), Arkansas, West Virginia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee.

■ Almost all of the states with the highest divorce rates, according to the Census Bureau, are red: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alaska, Alabama, Kentucky, Nevada (a blue exception, but it specializes in quick-stop divorces), Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Arizona. Also, Elias noted, red states "tend to have a far higher percentage of drug abuse, led by West Virginia."

Beyond the rhetoric and the numbers lies a great truth about red-state politics below the Mason-Dixon line. Lyndon Johnson, as he pushed civil rights and voting rights bills, knew he was signing the Democratic Party's death warrant in the South. He gave Bill Moyers a pen after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and said, "We delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine."

It has taken a bit longer for that prediction to come true here, but I saw it coming in Kentucky's 2008 Democratic presidential primary, in which Hillary Clinton crushed Obama 459,511 (65.5 percent) to 209,954 (29.9 percent).

In my native Pike County, there are lots of folks who wouldn't throw a bucket of water on Hillary if she were on fire in front of the courthouse. Yet in that primary, Pike County chose her over Obama 12,916 to 936.

Kentucky is one of America's least Obama-friendly red states. And it's not just a coal thing. Nor is it just about Kentucky's religious, conservative, rural values. McConnell used the GOP Southern strategy handed to him by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, took Western Kentucky away from the Democrats, and changed the state's political personality.

Some credit the phrase "Southern strategy" to onetime GOP operative Kevin Phillips, but he merely explained it, as in this quote from a 1970 piece in The New York Times: "From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that .... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."

Nobody wants to say it out loud, but race is part of the political equation, in Kentucky and elsewhere. We're not post-racial, yet.

This election firmed up the hold the Southern strategy has in Kentucky, with the defeat of Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler (leaving the state with just one Democrat in Congress) and the strengthening of Republicans' position in the state Senate (where McConnell's acolytes have done exactly what he has done in Washington: just say "No!").

Should we rejoice in McConnell's success at leading Kentucky out of the national political mainstream? I think our commonwealth is better than that.

For the record, this time Obama took an even worse beating in overwhelmingly Democratic Letcher County than he did four years ago — 6,811 to 1,702. Rite Aid got the first Whitesburg beer license. Food City sold the first beer. But East Kentucky Tobacco and Beer, for my money, has the best name.