Last night, the Democrats’ retreat from Appalachia turned into a rout as Matt Bevin was elected governor of Kentucky. The state had elected a Democrat to the office four years ago with a large majority, and mainstream opinion this time was that Bevin (who unsuccessfully challenged Mitch McConnell from the right in a primary in 2014) had no chance. He won by 9 percentage points.
This was a real test in Republican strength, and two points show that strength to be quite real. The first we knew for months: GOP voters outnumbered Democrats in the primary for the first time ever. That’s not always dispositive, but it shows a core party strength of numbers that conveys at least some advantage.
Second, the success carried down the ballot to some of the fairly anonymous row offices. These are as good a test as any for a parties’ statewide base, since it involves choosing a candidate that you know little or nothing about for an office you might not have known even existed. All you have to go on is the person’s name and party. The Republicans took most of these, with the Democrats holding only those in which their candidates had famous names (both are the children of Democratic politicians).
Kentucky has been Republican in presidential politics for a while now, but after last night we can say that it is well and truly a red state.
There was a lot of talk during the Democratic debate this week about Jim Webb, and his place in the Democratic party. Was he too conservative? Too martial? Too old-fashioned?
The real problem with Webb for Democrats is not what ideas he represents, but what geographic region he represents: Appalachia. Once the stronghold of FDR’s Democratic coalition, this region has been abandoned by Roosevelt’s successors. And the change is happening quickly. Look at this chart of the decrease in Democratic vote in Kentucky, and note that the mountainous counties have been in much steeper decline:
If we take the date back to 2004, the shift is even more pronounced:
Democrats in Appalachia are abandoning their party in droves, and they’re not coming back. Democrats at the national level claim to be the party that supports the poor, but when it comes to America’s poorest region, they seem to be going out of their way to alienate their erstwhile supporters. (For more on that, check out Kevin Williamson’s 2014 article on Appalachia here.) On guns, on religion, and on individualism, the party promotes everything Appalachians are against, and tries to make up for it with more welfare spending.
The people Jim Webb represents don’t want handouts, they want jobs. The Democratic establishment responds by fighting the coal industry, historically the biggest employer in Appalachia. Every step the Democrats take pushes them farther away from these historic stalwarts of the party. Webb is the last Democratic leader to care about them. With his inevitable defeat, Democrats will close the book on the region as they’ve closed their hearts to its people long ago.