Analysis: Governor's Race Shows Kentucky's Large And Growing Urban Rural Divide

Nov 7, 2019

In his successful 2007 gubernatorial run, Steve Beshear lost 28 counties, winning the state’s other 92. He also lost only 28 counties in his winning reelection bid in 2011.

His son Andy Beshear, running in a similar Democrat-but-not-that-left style, won just 23 counties on Tuesday, losing the other 97. Andy Beshear’s path to victory included huge margins in Jefferson and Fayette counties, which combined he won by about 36 percentage points (68-32). But the attorney general lost the rest of the 118 counties to Gov. Matt Bevin by a combined 12 percentage points (44-56).

The Father Beshear v. Son Beshear comparison illustrates something important that is happening in Kentucky politics: a growing divide along party and density lines, with people in rural areas increasingly favoring the GOP and urban voters preferring Democrats. This is not a particularly surprising divide, since it’s happening across the country. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won urban areas by 26 points (60-34), while Donald Trump won rural areas by a similar margin (34-61).

Electorally, this growing divide is bad for Democrats and good for Republicans in Kentucky, since the percentage of people who live in rural areas is higher here than in all but seven states. That divide helps explain why Democrats lost the other five constitutional offices and barely defeated the deeply unpopular Bevin.

But in terms of policy and governance, this divide is probably bad for Democrats, Republicans and most importantly, the state’s people. The state’s Republican Party is in many ways split from the cities that drive the state’s economy, Louisville and Lexington. Democrats, even if they really want to help the rural areas of the state, have some incentive to really focus on the two big cities, since they are heavily reliant on Democrats in Louisville and Lexington whenever an election comes up.

For the state’s residents, this urban/rural divide means that Republicans have a big electoral incentive to cast the Democrats as totally obsessed with Louisville and Lexington and demonize those city’s residents. Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the nation. But it has a totally different group of lawmakers working on urban poverty (Democrats) and rural poverty (Republicans) when a more collaborative approach might be more useful.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.

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