While long-ago Kentucky Gov. Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler Sr. insisted he “never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home,” the latest population numbers show that while people aren’t exiting the Bluegrass State like residents in neighboring Illinois, which lost more than 45,000 residents just in 2018, they’re also not choosing to remain in – or repopulate – rural areas to the same extent as occurred in past decades.
While these population trends don’t suggest that leftist Democratic candidates can succeed in becoming governor, attorney general or secretary of state while ignoring southeastern or far-western areas of the commonwealth, the message for any statewide candidate from either party is: this surely isn’t the same Kentucky that Happy Chandler governed or Ben, his grandson, represented in Congress.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins, House Minority Leader and longtime representative from Sandy Hook, ignored these demographic differences to his own political peril in the recent primary campaign.
By largely disregarding increasingly urbanized areas, or, more accurately, suburbanized areas near Louisville, Lexington and in Northern Kentucky – especially in the closing days of the contest, when voters are more likely to tune in – Adkins couldn’t secure the nomination, despite being the most conservative candidate on the Democratic ballot.
Attorney General Andy Beshear, on the other hand, won the urban and suburban areas and his party’s nomination.
Rep. Robert Goforth of East Bernstadt, who was the only serious Republican challenger to Gov. Matt Bevin, performed best in largely the same area as Adkins yet also fell way short of snatching the nomination from the incumbent.
While this was a primary race with low turnouts comprised largely of already-highly-motivated voter bases, which tempers some of the urban-suburban-rural changes, population shifts in recent decades have accelerated and showed up in other elections.
Conservatives who want to win statewide campaigns will need to do more than preach God, guns and guts to the hollers of eastern and even western Kentucky – especially when the middle of the political constituency is at stake in November’s general election.
Ron Crouch, former director of the Kentucky State Data Center, said that while this rural-to-suburban pattern is occurring nationwide, it’s more pronounced in the eastern and western parts of Kentucky, where “there’s even more of a population decline than the rest of the state or nation.”
Harlan County, for example, located in the heart of the swath won by both Adkins and Goforth, has seen its population decline from 75,000 to under 30,000 during the past half-century or so.
Crouch also notes there are a number of counties in western Kentucky which actually had greater populations in the year 1900 than today.
Factor into the population-change mix the fact that America now has the fewest number of births per women in history, meaning “eastern Kentucky actually does not replace itself now,” and Crouch surmises this all adds up to fewer voters in rural areas.
He says just the opposite is happening primarily in suburban neighborhoods, a fact that receives credible confirmation from the data.
For example, more than 31,000 additional voters showed up in Louisville metro’s mayoral race in November than in 2010, when Democrat Greg Fischer ended up outlasting Republican metro councilman Hal Heiner in a tight race.
More than 57,000 additional Lexington and Fayette County voters cast ballots in the 2018 congressional race than in the 2014 contest – both nonpresidential election years.
Beshear on Election Night repeated a line offered by different candidates several times throughout the primary race: “It’s not about right versus left, folks. It’s about right versus wrong.”
But candidates – especially conservatives – ignore that it’s also about “suburban versus urban” to their own peril.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @bipps.
Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.