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In seven counties of eastern Kentucky, Democratic voters vastly outnumber Republicans – by as much as 6 to 1. But in 2016 candidate Donald Trump swept the area by large margins. In 2020 it’s quite likely he’ll do so again.
That’s because east Kentucky Democrats are perhaps Democrats from another era. Their partisanship is part of their geographic identity, handed down from mother to son. Most Southern Democrats flipped to the GOP during the civil rights era – but not this region. That’s because it was heavily white to begin with, and civil rights just wasn’t a big issue, say political scientists.
Now this coal-rich region is experiencing change similar to the rest of the region. True, many voters still pull the lever for Democratic local officials. They’ve opposed the state’s Republican senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the last two times he’s run. But many voters here love President Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump’s vocally pro-coal. He’s against abortion and for gun rights. And in an area that pulses with religious feeling, many say Mr. Trump is the pro-Christian choice, whatever his personal behavior. They don’t see any 2020 Democrat who might win them back.
“The Democratic Party leadership in Washington has left – just completely left – people like us,” says Earl Kinner Jr., owner and editor of Morgan County’s Licking Valley Courier. “We’re no longer a priority.”
Earl Kinner Jr. chuckles, imagining what his father would say.
His father, Earl Kinner Sr., bought the Licking Valley Courier in the mid-1940s to cover local news in West Liberty, a town of fewer than 4,000 on the banks of the Licking River. Mr. Kinner Sr. was clear that his paper would lean left. No one was surprised. West Liberty had been a Democratic town for as long as anyone could remember.
In some important ways it still is. Like land, accents, and professions, political identity is passed down through generations here. Eastern Kentuckians like Mr. Kinner Jr. call themselves Democrats to this day because their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were Democrats: the party of the workingman.
But in recent years this tradition has confronted a new political reality. As the economy got worse for Kentucky Democrats (as they call themselves) over the last two decades, it seems like Washington Democrats (as they call them) just got louder about guns and abortion – two issues that already put Kentucky Democrats on the fringe of the party.
So prior to the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Kinner, who took over the Courier from his father more than three decades ago, found himself writing opinion pieces from his one-room newsroom in support of a New York real estate tycoon running as a Republican.
The tycoon promised to bring back the coal industry, eastern Kentucky’s economic mainstay. He was on the region’s side of social issues like abortion and seemed to talk their language of Christian faith.
Eastern Kentucky Democrats like Mr. Kinner say that in 2016 they finally found a conservative Democrat they could support: Donald Trump. Candidate Trump swept the region. Voters here say that so far, there’s no 2020 Democratic candidate that can win them back.
“The Democratic Party leadership in Washington has left – just completely left – people like us,” says Mr. Kinner. “We’re no longer a priority.”
To a Democratic Party staffer flipping through statistics at a desk in Washington, there is a core area of rural eastern Kentucky that appears as if it might be fruitful territory in the 2020 presidential election.
In the seven counties that make up this area – Morgan, home to Mr. Kinner’s Licking Valley Courier; Nicholas, Bath, Menifee, Rowan, Elliott, and Wolfe – Democratic registered voters vastly outnumber Republican ones, sometimes by margins of 6 to 1. All seven counties voted against Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, when he last ran for reelection in 2014. They all voted against Senator McConnell in his race before that, in 2008, as well.
But President Donald Trump swept the area in 2016. More than two-thirds of Morgan County voted Trump, for instance.
Some of the counties have gone Republican at the presidential level in the past, so in that sense weren’t a big surprise. But Elliott County had voted Democratic in every presidential ballot since the county was organized in 1869. It voted for President Barack Obama twice.
In 2016 Elliott County voted for Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton by 70.1% to 25.9%.
“I’ve been a Democrat since I was old enough to register,” says Mike Reynolds, a maintenance lineman, as he finishes his lunch in the Frosty Freeze, a landmark in the town of Sandy Hook. “And I’ll vote for Trump again.”
Politics from another era
In Elliott County the biggest town is Sandy Hook, and in Sandy Hook, the biggest spot is the Frosty Freeze: a wood-paneled diner offering four varieties of fried potatoes. Diners filter in and out, greeting each other by their first names. It’s open seven days a week, 365 days a year, says Mr. Reynolds.
But he quickly corrects himself. Actually, he says to clarify, it’s closed on Christmas.
So, why did the few thousand residents of this small county vote against 147 years of tradition in 2016? The Obama era is what changed people, says Mr. Reynolds.
“The coal really hurt us, then throw guns and abortion in and it’s game over,” says Mr. Reynolds.
The area’s pipefitters and boilermakers are now also out of business, he says, with nearby factories closing in recent years.
As Mr. Reynolds talks about his recent voting history during his lunch break at the Frosty Freeze, it seems to parallel with Elliott County’s larger shift. In 2008 Mr. Reynolds voted for President Obama, who won more than 60% of the county that year. In 2012, unhappy with Obama’s first term but not ready to vote for a Republican, Mr. Reynolds decided not to vote as Mr. Obama eked out a second victory.
Then in 2016, for the first time in his life, Mr. Reynolds voted for a Republican presidential candidate. And Mr. Trump won Elliott County with 70% of the vote.
It’s possible that the Trump explosion in a collection of counties where registered Democrats make up a substantial majority is evidence of a tectonic shift long masked by Kentucky’s complicated registration process. Voters have to register with a new party months before an election, for example. “Democrats” here may be Democrats only on paper.
It’s also possible that the political identity of many of eastern Kentucky’s conservative Democrats is grounded in another era. In the 1970s, Democrats in Congress voted against abortion at about the same rate as their Republican peers. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Democratic voters consistently supported access to abortion compared with Republican voters.
And when former President Bill Clinton passed gun reform bills in 1993 and 1994, requiring background checks for many purchases and banning assault rifles, respectively, 25% to 30% of House Democrats voted against the measures. Many of these lawmakers were “Blue Dog Democrats” – representatives of conservative districts, most of them rural and Southern or Middle American.
Socially conservative Democrats are rare in Congress – even the new Blue Dogs are centrists, rather than traditionalists. “They are certainly an endangered species,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism, and former chief political writer of the Louisville Courier Journal.
Eastern Kentucky’s partisan switch was also predictable, given that it had already taken place in every other Southern state, says Mr. Cross.
During the civil rights era, many Democratic Southerners disagreed with their party’s support of the issue and became Republicans. That dynamic never quite took hold in Kentucky, says Mr. Cross. He suspects it’s because of the all-white population of Kentucky in general, and eastern Kentucky in particularly. Desegregation simply wasn’t as big of an issue for them.
So it wasn’t until the Obama administration, “the most anti-coal administration in American history,” says Mr. Cross, that Kentucky and West Virginia (a state with even fewer people of color and even more coal) finally became ripe for the Republican picking.
Religion and votes
In eastern Kentucky these economic and social shifts were compounded by the 2016 election, when the Democratic Party picked Hillary Clinton as their presidential nominee – a choice Kentucky Democrats say they didn’t want. There wasn’t an alternative they liked better, they say, but it felt like the decision was forced on them. And much of their distrust and dislike of Mrs. Clinton circles back to the religious push behind their social views.
“No one here’s going to vote for a woman president,” says Lora Goodpaster while washing the color out of a woman’s hair at Heatwaves Salon in Bath. Bath, where almost 1 in 4 residents live in poverty, voted to uphold its status as a dry county in 2017.
“Getting your elderly convinced that women can go out and get power is hard when you have your preacher, who you respect, tell you the man is the head of the house,” says Ms. Goodpaster.
The other women in Heatwaves nod in agreement.
It’s not just Bath. Conservative Christian faith pulses throughout eastern Kentucky. Anti-abortion signs with Bible passages are staked across lawns in Elliott County and painted on barn doors in Nicholas County. In Rowan County, the side of one house says, “I’m watching you – God.”
“People here don’t approve of abortion for religious reasons,” says Mr. Kinner. “And they feel like they are looked down upon and belittled for those reasons.”
When Mr. Kinner talks about how West Liberty’s courthouse used to hold the town’s religious revivals, he almost sounds nostalgic. Today there seems to be a greater separation at the national level between church and state, say eastern Kentuckians. But Mr. Trump is helping to close that, they say.
“I vote for whoever votes for Christian values,” adds Dale Oakley, who helps manage Aunt Bubba’s for his daughter, the owner. “And right now, [Mr.] Trump is the only one who’s stood up for Christianity.”
The separation between faith and politics in today’s Democratic Party surprises, confuses – and then isolates – voters in eastern Kentucky. They are used to Democrats like Kentucky House of Representatives Minority Leader Rocky Adkins from Rowan County, who is a member of the Pro-Life Caucus and voted for several bills this year to restrict abortion. Mr. Adkins ran for governor this spring and lost in the Democratic primary by a few percentage points. But Mr. Adkins won all of eastern Kentucky, many counties by more than 70%.
Of Morgan, Nicholas, Bath, Menifee, Rowan, Elliott, and Wolfe, all but two have Democratic judge executives, the highest executive office at the county level in Kentucky.
“Locally, I vote for Democrats all the time,” says Mr. Oakley. “But I won’t vote for a Washington Democrat.”
‘We respect horse traders’
Eastern Kentuckians’ ideological mix of old Democratic Party and new Republican Party – its own unique DNA double helix – will make 2020 an interesting election for the state, when both President Trump and Senator McConnell will be up for reelection.
Mr. McConnell’s biggest threat in recent elections – besides the state’s two largest cities of Louisville and Lexington – has been the cluster of seven eastern counties. All voted against him the last two times he’s been on the ballot. They’ll remain an important focus for former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a prominent Democrat looking to unseat the Senate majority leader.
“If I were [Mr.] McConnell, I would be incredibly scared about that area,” says Ryan Aquilina, founder of the anti-McConnell political action committee Ditch Mitch.
But Mr. McConnell will likely be fine, considering he will be on the Republican ballot with Mr. Trump. As for the president’s chances himself in 2020, dozens of eastern Kentuckians interviewed for this article were asked if they would vote to reelect President Trump. They all said “yes,” and they all said “yes” emphatically. Some even answered before the question was asked.
Knowing the area, Mr. Kinner isn’t surprised about Mr. Trump’s support. He says the president is like a Kentucky horse trader: He drives a hard bargain, and sometimes that means being loud and bluffing.
“My dad said the people here are the salt of the earth, but be careful trading with them cause they’ll take you to the cleaners,” says Mr. Kinner. “We respect horse traders.”