I moved here in 1986 and made this my adopted state.
I often read, including here at Daily Kos, that Kentucky is a "Red" (or Republican-dominated) state. "Wow. Isn't it amazing that Alison Lundergan Grimes is doing so well in a red state like KY." "How about that? One the most successful rollouts of the ACA exchanges is in red state KY, thanks to its' ConservaDem governor, Steve Beshear." Etc.
Well, if you join me below the Great Orange Cloud, I'll try to show that KY is a purple (and "blueing") state. Sip a mint julep or some good Kentucky bourbon (or, my choice, one of our fine microbrews, such as found at Bluegrass Brewing Co.), kick your shoes off, and "set a spell," while I make my case. Or, if you don't drink alcohol, I can recommend some mighty fine specialty coffees at Louisville's Heine Bros. Coffee shops--unlike Starbucks, the beans are bought in Fair Trade regulations (no exploiting Juan Valdez and all his relations). They also have fine Fair Trade Teas and good Wi-Fi in the cafes. (BTW, I know that, grammatically, one "sits" rather than "sets" and so do most Kentuckians, but the phrase "sit a spell" is still PRONOUNCED "set a spell.")
Kentucky, at the border between the South and the Midwest, has a unique history, only a fraction of which I can relate here: It was a slave state, but it was also a hotbed of abolitionist activity before the Civil War. Kentucky abolitionists founded Berea College, the first college below the Mason-Dixon line which educated both white and black people together. (I'll write more on the wonderful Berea College at another time.) Both Abraham Lincoln and (Confederate President) Jefferson Davis were born in Kentucky, 100 miles apart and within a year of each other. When the Civil War broke out, Kentucky declared itself "neutral," but its citizens supplied the Union with 100,000 troops and the Confederacy with 40,000 troops and several battles were fought on its soil. Because it had been neutral during the War, there were no occupying troops during Reconstruction. This may have spared the white population some of the humiliation and resentment that fueled the racism of the Deep South, but KY didn't escape it altogether (even today) and it's freed black population didn't make as much progress during Reconstruction as other states.
Kentucky has always been more diverse than most other Southern states. From the time of European colonization onward (when KY was just a very large county of VA), Kentucky has had a large Catholic population--even when most of this nation was Protestant. And it has had a comparatively large Jewish population since the 19th Century. Today, it is far more diverse since it is a favorite location the federal government uses for resettling international refugees. My city of Louisville has synagogues representing all 3 major branches of Judaism, two Islamic Centers, a Buddhist temple, a Wiccan center, a Quaker meeting and is the home of the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant denomination and has both a Presbyterian and a Southern Baptist seminary, 2 Catholic universities and much more. And that's just in Louisville.
This diversity held up even under Jim Crow, but KY was the scene of many battles in the Civil Rights struggle (A.D. Williams King, brother to Martin Luther King, Jr., was a pastor in Louisville and head of the Kentucky Christian Leadership Conference) from the '50s through the early '70s.
From the time of Reconstruction onward, KY was dominated by the Democratic Party. Yes, this was the Southern Democratic Party, but it was not entirely shaped by the same deep racism as much of the rest of the South. Kentucky-born U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan Marshall (1833-1911, Assoc. Justice from 1877-1911) was the sole dissenting vote on the notorious "separate but equal" case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which upheld the legality of the Southern apartheid system known as "segregation" or "Jim Crow." And the great "People's Lawyer," the first Supreme Court Justice to use the law on behalf of economic justice, Louis Brandeis (1856-1941, Assoc. Justice 1916-1939) was also from Louisville, KY and the University of Louisville's law school is named after him. (Update: I am reminded in the comments to mention that Brandeis was the nation's first Jewish Supreme Court Justice.)
There is also a long history of populist radicalism in Kentucky.
However, there is no denying that the state and the Kentucky Democratic Party largely participated in the sad history of segregation and conservatism from the late 19th C. through the modern Civil Rights era. The Democratic Party that dominated Kentucky until the late 1980s was conservative and had its fair share of racists. But because it was not as deep as further South, there wasn't the headlong white flight to the Republican Party that began with Nixon's Southern strategy.
I can understand why Kentucky looks like a red state to the casual observer. Both our U.S. Senators are Republican and, worse, one is the horrid Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Douchebag) and the other is the fake Libertarian Teahadist (and presidential wannabe) Rand Paul (R-Deluded). We haven't had a Democratic Senator since Wendell Ford retired in '99--and he was a ConservaDem not much more liberal than Mark Pryor (D-AR), or Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Out of 6 U.S. House Districts, only 1has a Democratic Representative,the 3rd (Louisville). Kentucky hasn't "gone blue" on the presidential level since 1996, nearly 20 years.
So, on the surface, Kentucky looks like another "ancestrally blue" state that;s "going red." Not as fast as TN, perhaps, but much like MO, WV, or LA. And from 1996 to 2006, that was exactly our trajectory. But since then, we've been turning that around. That hasn't been easy because the Kentucky Democratic Party machine is creaky and controlled by shortsighted ConservaDems and, while KY has had a growing Latino population (like all of America), it is much smaller than states where this will be a major blueing factor--at least in the near term. Nor has KY benefitted from growing numbers of federal workers like VA or high tech workers in a Research Triangle like NC. In fact, the Eastern part of our state is greying, not-very-educated, whiter than the national average, and controlled by King Coal--much like WV. Update: The Western part of the state is also coal country and very conservative.
But, despite all that, Kentucky;s reddening trajectory was haulted in '06, and we are now a reddish-purple--but getting bluer. In 2006, in the Democratic wave, John Yarmuth (D-03) defeated Ann Northup (R-03), McConnell's hand-picked protégé, who had misrepresented the 3rd district for a decade, and had even become a favorite of George W. Bush and a strident Neo-con. Also, Ben Chandler (D-06), a ConservaDem/Blue Dog, took back the 6th District (Lexington) and kept it until 2012. It was a start.
KY benefitted from having elections for statewide offices (Gov., Lt. Gov., etc.) on odd years and ConservaDem Steve Beshear (D-KY) defeated the corrupt Ernie Fletcher (R-KY) for governor. Beshear didn't have many good ideas: his campaign was a one-note "I'll raise revenue by bringing casino gambling to the state," but he won because of Fletcher's corruption. (Casino gambling? Seriously? The one issue that could unite the horseracing industry and Churchill Downs with the Religious Right against its passage? Yeah, it keeps failing and Beshear keeps trying.) But he grew into his role: He found that Fletcher, through both embezzlement and mismanagement, had nearly bankrupted the state. Beshear was forced to make deep cuts to education and social programs that Dems hold dear--but these were made BEFORE the crash of '08 which saved our bacon. With nothing left to slash, Beshear was able get a raise on tobacco and alcohol taxes through both the Democratically controlled House and the GOP-controlled Senate. When combined with the fact that the housing bubble burst was smaller than in other states and the aid from the stimulus, KY started coming out of the recession in 2010. This didn't help Dems in that "year from hell" (Pelosi) for Democrats: Atty. General Jack Conway (D-KY) lost the U.S. Senate race to the odious Rand Paul (R-Nutjob) and KY only Yarmuth survived in the House races. But, in 2011, Beshear was reelected and Democrats took every statewide office except Agriculture Commissioner. In 2014, we have a very real chance of defeating McConnell for U.S. Senate and reclaiming the 6th Congressional seat. I expect us to keep control of the KY House and narrow the gap in the state senate.
Kentucky has about 1/3 more registered Democrats than Republicans--and very few independents.
More indications of our bluing status:
Labor-friendly: KY and MD are the only states south of the Mason-Dixon line that are NOT "Right to Work (for less)" states. We firmly rejected attempts to change this in 2011 and 2012 while such legislation was passed in bluer states like MI, OH, and WI.
Progress on gay rights: Yes, sadly, KY was one of the many idiotic states in '04 that amended out constitution to outlaw marriage equality--and the wording was broad enough to ban civil unions or even heterosexual domestic partnerships. Because of the latter, it is being challenged in the courts and I hope it is struck down. But in Louisville, Lexington, Covington, Henderson, and Jefferson County the FAIRNESS Campaign has successfully passed legislation preventing LGBT discrimination in housing and employment. 86% of Kentuckians now favor a statewide Fairness Ordinance. In 2010, otherwise such a poor year for progressive news, Lexington, KY elected its first openly gay mayor, Jim Gray (D-Lexington). Update: 1) I am reminded in the comments to mention Vicco, KY, the smallest town in the USA to pass Fairness, i.e., legislation protecting LGBTQ folk in the workplace and from housing discrimination. 2)I should also mention that, although KY as a whole is behind the nation in wanting marriage equality, polling suggests that if the '04 constitutional amendment were proposed today, it would probably fail. REPEALING it or actively enacting marriage equality, though, that will be harder and take longer. But the younger generation(s) are ready. I visit high schools and colleges throughout the Commonwealth and can't find anyone born after 1995 who understands what the big deal is: Even many younger evangelicals and conservative Catholics are ready for marriage equality. It's coming, even here.
Kentucky has fully implemented the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion and one of the best healthcare exchanges (KYnect.com) with no arm-twisting or foot dragging.
Kentucky has banned for-profit prisons. We have a diversionary drug court, to deal with nonviolent drug offenders without prison.
Rooftop solar, hydroelectric, and wind are all making inroads in this state where coal is still king of Eastern KY (and destroying it with mountaintop removal).
There is a battle for industrial hemp that is making headway.
We have no voter suppression laws. No "emergency manager" laws. And, while KY is hardly a hotbed of radical feminism and while anti-reproductive choice forces have some clout, there are no vaginal probe laws, no trap laws forcing closure of abortion clinics, no outlawing of Planned Parenthood, no forced ultra-sound laws.
And all the things mentioned in that last paragraph can be found in states which, on paper, look much bluer than Kentucky.
Conclusion: The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a purple state. We are still redder than blue. But if Sec. of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY) wins her (admittedly uphill) U.S. Senate race against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Gridlock) in '14, we will have taken a LARGE step forward on a blue path. Cheer us on. Help us out if you can. And visit us, too: We wear shoes (mostly), our two largest cities have world class arts scenes, our K-12 public schools are improving --and some are as good as any in the nation--check beforehand. We have good public universities and private colleges and universities. We've produced some great entertainers, leaders, and even scientists. If you are a liberal in MA or VT or MN and are having trouble with your winters, think about moving here--you'll help us "go blue" that much faster.
Update: You know, maybe progressives and Democrats, whether religious or atheistic or uninterested in religion, could learn a lesson from missionaries: If you want your views to spread, some of you have to leave the safe lands where everyone already believes, and move to where folks need to hear the message. Don't come like carpetbaggers, thinking you have all the answers. Be prepared to listen as well as share wisdom, but, really: Wouldn't a 50-State Strategy work better if College Democrats chapters in deep blue states had conversations about strategic relocation after university? Not just chasing the great job, but also wondering where one could become part of a "critical mass" that starts change in previously unlikely places? Just a thought.