A ‘blue wave’? Kentucky voter registration stats say no

Published: Sep. 8, 2018 at 2:59 PM EDT
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When President Donald Trump speaks, and tweets, Amy Evans can’t help but cringe.

Yet the 68-year-old longtime registered Democrat in central Kentucky recently switched her voter registration to the Republican Party. Although Trump’s controversies have Democrats dreaming of a “blue wave” in November, Evans said she tunes out the president’s words and has no regrets about switching parties.

“I don’t read his tweets. I really like what he has done,” she said. “There are a lot of people just like me. We’re not vocal; we just follow our hearts. We follow what we feel is right.”

Evans is one of thousands of Kentucky voters who have switched their registrations to Republican in recent years. Since Trump took office in January 2017, Democrats have lost more than 2,500 registered voters statewide while Republicans have added more than 58,000. This year, for the first time in memory, Democrats fell below 50 percent of all registered voters in the state.

That could have national consequences in Democrats’ efforts to control Congress. In Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, where Evans lives, most political observers have Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in a toss-up race with Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired fighter pilot. In that district alone, Republicans have added more than 9,000 voters while Democrats have added more than 2,000.

“That tells me some of this is more hype than substance,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican consultant with close ties to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I doubt very seriously anybody registered to vote Republican this year, which are many, is going to vote for Amy McGrath.”

But Democrats have enthusiasm on their side, especially after thousands of teachers protested Republican lawmakers’ plans to overhaul pensions for state employees. More than 100,000 people voted in the Democratic primary in May, a six-person contest with three well-known candidates. Less than half that many voted in the Republican primary, where Barr won easily over little-known challenger Chuck Eddy.

Primary elections are closed in Kentucky, meaning only people registered with a political party can vote in that party’s primary. Democrats dominated state politics for most of the 20th century and held a huge voter registration advantage. In 2016, Trump won Kentucky with 62 percent of the vote, helping Republicans win majorities in the state House and Senate. As Republicans win more races statewide and locally, voters have more incentive to register with the GOP so they can vote in primaries.

One example is Erik Henderson, McGrath’s husband, who registered as a Republican in Scott County last year. He could not vote for his wife in the primary but will in the general election.

Anthony Harover, chairman of the GOP in Shelby County, where Republicans are on the cusp of a majority in voter registration, said the practical value of being registered as a Democrat has diminished over time. But he thinks that’s because national Democratic leaders lost touch with Kentucky voters.

“People have been voting for Republicans, nationally and statewide, in Shelby County for a long time,” he said. “I think they finally just decided the Democratic Party nationally doesn’t fit the way they believe.”

Registrations really took off when Obama became president, influencing people like Evans, who said that made her realize “the liberalism on the Democratic ticket is not acceptable to me.”

Barr’s campaign is built to appeal to voters like her; his TV ads paint McGrath as a liberal feminist. Barr said he views the voter registration trends as proof voters want what he is selling.

“What that tells me is that my constituents are happy with the direction of the country and they are increasingly aligning themselves with our agenda,” he said.

McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, said Democrats deserve to be losing the voter registration battle in Kentucky because they have not tried hard enough to connect with rural voters. But he said McGrath is taking the opposite approach.

“I think Democrats maybe lulled themselves into believing these big registration advantages meant something. And, frankly, they don’t,” he said. “I think we deserved this trend. And now it’s up to us to start rebuilding. I think Amy McGrath is a big piece of it this year.”

Voter registration numbers are better at reflecting long-term voting patterns than predicting specific election results, University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss said. Kentucky has favored the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 2000, and Voss said the shift toward Republicans reflects that.

But he said that doesn’t mean voters won’t elect Democrats this year. Democratic voters are energized, he said, and that could influence independent voters.

“If a Democrat were going to take this seat from Andy Barr, this is the year,” Voss said. “The conditions are as good for Democrats as they are going to get.”

That could be true for Evans: She hasn’t decided who she will vote for yet.

“I’m going to have a hard time voting for Andy Barr this year. I probably will. I won’t know until I get into the booth,” she said. “I just don’t like the man. I can’t even tell you why. I just don’t like him.”