April 27, 2016
The election of U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, in 1995, broke a long streak of Democratic representation in western Kentucky and has allowed for a shift toward conservatism to settle in, putting the Democratic control of the House at risk.
Before Whitfield’s election, the 1st Congressional District was known as the Democratic Rock of Gibraltar, having been represented by Democrats for more than 100 years.
“It’s been kind of a natural progression for us to follow the other southern states into the Republican camp,” said Ben Chandler, a former Democratic congressman from the 6th District in central Kentucky.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Rep. Steven Rudy, R-Paducah, cited the policies of President Barack Obama as a source of acceleration for the political shift.
“The overall Democratic principles from the party and from Obama have been seen by Kentucky as negative,” said Greg DeLancey, chairman of the Republican Party of Calloway County. “The Democratic Party has gone so liberal that [western Kentucky Democrats] can’t associate themselves with it anymore.”
Despite the growth of conservatives, 56 percent of voters in the 1st Congressional District are registered Democrats while only 37 percent are registered Republicans, according to the Kentucky State Board of Elections.
DeLancey, who worked to establish a Kentucky Republican caucus this campaign season, also credits the political transition to the Republican efforts to make voters recognize conservative values, including social, moral and fiscal conservatism and the push for smaller government.
Fred Nesler, former Democratic state representative from Graves County, said Republicans have done a good job defining Democrats to be in opposition.
“My personal opinion is that we have not done a very good job of explaining both the history of this party and what it stands for,” Calloway County’s Democratic Party chairman David Ramey said.
Not only was western Kentucky a Democratic Rock of Gibraltar, but the commonwealth itself as well.
“We only have one legislative chamber in all of the South that’s held by the Democrats: the Kentucky House of Representatives,” Chandler said. “And that is at risk this year.”
As Republicans look to this election as a chance to flip the House, Ramey said he hopes to retain the House majority, running against incumbent state Rep. Kenny Imes, R-Murray, in the election for state representative of the 5th District.
“People in western Kentucky elected Democrats for generations,” Ramey said. “We just have to remind them why they did that in the first place.”
The 2016 elections in four of the six House districts that make up western Kentucky include Republican incumbents, one of which is unopposed, while only two districts have Democratic incumbents up for re-election. Additionally, state Sens. Stan Humphries, R-Cadiz, and Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, both run unopposed, retaining Republican Senate control in western Kentucky.
“The Republican Party has been very interested in the last four years of pushing and trying to get those races to bring in a Republican,” DeLancey said. “It’s going to be a tough fight.”