March 24, 2014

Twenty years after the Republican Revolution

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” aka The Republican Revolution, and also the emergence of a competitive two-party system in Kentucky politics.

Between 1994-2014, the evolution of the Republican Party in Kentucky at the state and federal levels has been nothing less than dramatic. In 1994, western Kentucky, the so-called Rock of Gibraltar in political circles because it was the state’s largest enclave of Democrats, fell to Republicans in congressional races, producing U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, and Ron Lewis, R-Cecilia. Those CDs have stayed R, and the Rock of Gibraltar moved to Jefferson County.

Kentucky’s U.S. House delegation flipped in 1994. That year it went from 4-2 Democratic to 4-2 Republican. Today it is 5-1 Republican. The U.S. Senate was 1-1 in 1994, with Democrat Wendell Ford and Republican Mitch McConnell, and now both seats are red.

While the fall of western Kentucky to Republicans in the 1994 federal elections was the most telling that Kentucky might be emerging as a competitive two-party state, the competitiveness was also starting to show up in the state Senate.

Going into the 1994 elections, the Democrats ruled the state Senate 25-13. That year, the Republicans picked up four seats, reducing the Democrats’ margin to 21-17. In the 2000 session, Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in the state’s history and now dominate the upper chamber 23-14, with one Independent who caucuses with the Republicans. The past twenty years have brought a virtual flip of the Senate, and that has produced a dynamic shift in the political apparatus and power structure in Frankfort.

A similar trend, apparently stemming also from the 1994 period, has been evolving in the state House of Representatives. For the first time in more than 90 years, the Republicans in 2014 have an even chance to capture control of the House. The makeup now is 54-46, advantage Democrats. Going into the 1994 elections, the Democrats ruled the state House 72-28. That year, the Republicans picked up nine seats, reducing the Democrats’ margin to 63-37.

Voter registration is another indicator of the political evolution in Kentucky during the past twenty years. During the twenty-year period, the number of registered Democrats statewide grew from 1,401,893 to 1,667,605, an increase of 19.1 percent; and the number of registered Republicans statewide grew from 635,531 to 1,187,553, an increase of 86.9 percent.  

Said another way, the Democrats’ advantage in voter registration over the Republicans from 1994 to 2014 slipped from 2.2:1 to 1.4:1.