USA Journal 2012 #6: Kentucky

by Jackie_South on August 20, 2012

Kentucky’s 6th congressional district

For the sixth installment in my travel journal around the States, I have crossed the River Ohio to travel on to Kentucky’s Bluegrass region.

Lexington, the state’s second largest city, is an affluent place which in England would be thought of as a medium-large town rather than a city.  As you can tell from today’s photograph, they like their horses in Kentucky: statues and signs with them abound.  The proposed site for the city’s largest building in the heart of the city has been grassed over and fenced in to create a paddock until work starts.  This is one state where Romney’s dancing horse will probably not cost him votes.

Lexington’s most famous son was possibly the most important senator in American history: Henry Clay.  Clay stood for president three times in the nineteenth century, and failed to secure his party’s nomination on two other occasions.  He is known as the Great Compromiser, the mover behind the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1833 Compromise Tariff and the Compromise of 1850.  The latter arguably postponed the Civil War for a decade, but it did also give slavery some extra strength by introducing harsher law for those who aided escaped slaves.  Despite this, Clay’s ownership of slaves and pro-slavery rhetoric leading up to the 1844 election, Lincoln was a great admirer of Clay.

Compromisers rarely gain the same adoration as zealots.  Whilst his South Carolinian senate contemporary John Calhoun is celebrated by a statue on top of a huge column in his home city of Charleston, there are no statues of Clay in downtown Lexington.  Clay’s estate, Ashland, has long since been absorbed into the city with most of its former grounds now turned over for housing, although the house itself remains.

At Ashland, the explanation for Clay’s final, most personally devastating, narrow defeat in 1844 by James Polk was twofold: the popularity of Polk’s expansionist message and the impact of his choice of running mate.  Clay was criticised in his life for being a gambler, drinker, comproimser and slave-holder, so he chose New Jersey evangelical puritan Theodore Frelinghuysen as his running mate to numb those criticisms.  Unfortunately for Clay, Frelinghuysen’s evangelism had an anti-Catholic strand, alienating voters in New York.

You have to wonder whether history will repeat itself with Romney’s pick of Ryan for similar reasons.  Ryan’s views on Medicare and abortion could have a similar impact on elderly and female voters.  More on the latter issue later on.

Lexington seems a little ashamed about its role in the Civil War, but not in the way you might expect.  Kentucky was a southern state that remained in the Union, although this was explained to me at Ashland as “Kentuckians joined both sides, Kentucky stayed neutral”.  Lexington was a pro-Union town, and Henry Clay’s Confederate-backing son was run out of town.  Yet it is the town’s Confederates (such as John Breckenridge) that get the statues in the centre of town, not the Union nor Clay.  After the Civil War, the state was quick to identify with the rest of the South, and you still see old boys downtown wearing baseball caps bearing the Confederate battle flag.

Today’s guest paper

Today’s guest paper is the Lexington Herald-Leader. When I bought it, I was warned that its price will be doubling tomorrow to $2.  When I explained that wouldn’t be an issue, the shopkeeper said “well, it’s a pretty pathetic paper anyway“.

The cover story might evidence that: having the fact that a couple of Lexington residents went to university with Paul Ryan as your lead story is a little lame.  However I have to say it is a lot better inside, albeit a little thin to justify a $2 price-tag.  Its other story about Ryan pointed out his hypocrisy in attacking Obama’s economic stimulus whilst making sure the motor industry in his own district benefited from it.

Presidential race

Bill Clinton won Kentucky in both his presidential contests.  However it has been safely Republican since then, winning by 60%-40% in 2004 and 57%-41% in both 2000 and 2008.  Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight gives Romney a 99.3% chance of winning the state in November and currently puts his lead as 59%-41%.  Like neighbouring West Virginia, coal, guns and conservative values appear to have moved the state out of contention in the foreseeable future.

House of Representatives

There is no senate race in the state this year, so the focus of the congressional races is on the six House of Representatives contests.

Of these, the race in Lexington’s sixth district promises to be the closest.  Given Lexington’s affluence, it is unsurprising that the district leans Republican, R+9 (i.e. 9% more Republican than the average district) on the Cook PVI score.  Yet, the district is held by a Democrat, Ben Chandler.

Chandler won the district unexpectedly in a by-election (called a special election in the USA) in 2004, and has held it ever since. However, he only held it in 2010 by 647 votes.

He is helped a little this time around by boundary changes, shifting the seat a little eastwards.  However, like elsewhere just west of the Appalachians, coal may play a role in the election that helps his opponent, Republican Andy Barr. That is not because there is much mining in the district itself, but because a number of mining companies decided that Lexington was a nicer and more accessible place to put their headquarters than in the coalfields further east.

Despite Chandler’s fairly pro-coal stance, the industry wants to stick the finger up at Democrats in Congress, Obama, and the Environmental Protection Agency in particular, by backing the Republicans.  November will see a tight battle to see if money can outplay Chandler’s strong record in representing the district.


Across the Mississippi from Kentucky, things have got interesting in the senate race in the Show Me State.  Before the weekend, it looked as if first-term Democratic senator Claire McCaskill might have a tough fight to retain her seat there.  Missouri is a state that used to be a swing state but has now voted Republican, albeit marginally, in the last three presidential elections.  Fivethirtyeight gave the GOP a 10% edge in the race only last week.

Her chances improved massively when her Republican opponent, Todd Akin, spoke on abortion in an interview with a local TV station yesterday. Tea Party supporting Akin is currently congressman for St Louis’ affluent northern and western suburbs, and is an arch anti-abortion conservative.

In the interview, Akin was questioned about whether he would permit abortion in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape.  He replied “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, it is really rare.  If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

You what?!?  Around 5% of rape victims become pregnant as a result, hardly “really rare” compared to other unprotected sex.  But where on earth did Akin get this idea that the body rejects pregnancy automatically in the case of ‘legitimate rape’, whatever that is?  Is this a coded way of saying that if a woman falls pregnant due to rape, it was probably not really rape at all?

Frighteningly, Akin serves on the congressional Science Committee.

Most pundits, including the Republican regular commentator on CNN, now think that Akin is toast.  Romney and Ryan are putting as much distance as they can between them and Akin, disowning the statements.  Missouri Republicans are asking Akin to step aside from the senate race, although Akin is refusing to do so.

Will he be persuaded to change his mind? Will an alternative right candidate be put up against him?

It looks as if Akin has shown the Show Me State a little too much of what the Republican Party is really like.

Previous post:

Next post: