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Why Red-State Kentucky Got A Shoutout From Obama

Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, has gotten considerable attention for embracing President Obama's Affordable Care Act and adopting the Common Core educational standards.
Roger Alford
Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, has gotten considerable attention for embracing President Obama's Affordable Care Act and adopting the Common Core educational standards.

Steve Beshear couldn't help but chuckle during the State of the Union speech when President Obama said, "Kentucky's not the most liberal part of the country."

Obama was singling out his fellow Democrat for being the rare Southern governor who has fully implemented the Affordable Care Act, expanding Medicaid and running a state health insurance exchange that launched far more smoothly than the federal model.

Kentucky, the home of prominent Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, is not a blue state. It's not a place, like Connecticut or California, that has shown interest in restricting gun rights or recognizing same-sex marriages.

"I understand that the national persona of Kentucky in most people's minds reflects the face of our congressional delegation, but that's not what Kentucky's all about," Beshear says. "No, it's not a liberal beacon in the country, but it's not a radical right-wing place, either."

Beshear has gotten a lot of attention for embracing Obamacare, but that's not the only victory progressives have enjoyed in his state. Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core educational standards, which have become anathema among many conservatives.

Jack Conway, the state's Democratic attorney general, is leading dozens of his peers in investigating lending practices among for-profit universities, which disproportionately support Republicans in terms of campaign donations.

And earlier this month, the Kentucky House approved a bill that would restore voting rights for felons.

Not Obama Country

A Gallup poll out this week showed Kentucky among the 10 states that gave Obama his worst approval ratings.

That's not a surprise. In 2012, Obama lost 116 of the state's 120 counties.

In fact, that year, even his performance in the state's Democratic primary was unconvincing. The president lost to "Uncommitted" in 67 counties.

"You'd be missing the boat to be suggesting that there's some shift to the left here," says Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.

In addition to McConnell and Paul — respectively, the Senate Republican leader and one of its best-known Tea Party-aligned stars — Republicans hold five out of six U.S. House seats in Kentucky. The GOP also controls the state Senate.

But Democrats enjoy a majority in the state House and hold all but one statewide office.

"We have a fairly strong Democratic Party, compared to most of the South," Voss says. "A lot of the voters here oppose the national Democratic Party, but they are not loyal Republicans. They're not even especially ideological."

Targeting McConnell

National Democrats are hopeful about their chances of unseating McConnell this fall. Assuming he survives a primary challenge from his right, he will face Allison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state and daughter of a longtime Democratic operative.

But Democrats shouldn't be overly optimistic. "Grimes has an uphill battle for obvious reasons," says Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political scientist.

"All in all, the state is generally conservative," he says. "Even the Democrats for the most part tend to be more conservative than Democrats nationally."

While Democrats may tilt fairly conservative, not all the state's Republicans are as ideologically driven as their counterparts in other places. Parts of the state have been Republican since the Civil War, but that's for "reasons that have nothing to do with what the party stands for today," Voss says.

Health And Education Expansions

When the state House moved to restore voting rights for nonviolent felons, the chamber was cheered on by none other than Rand Paul.

"The right to vote is a sacred one in our country and it is the very foundation of our republic," Paul said in a statement.

Beshear speaks in less grandiose terms about the progressive victories he has pulled off. An additional 175,000 Kentuckians are on Medicaid, he says, representing more than a quarter of the state's previously uninsured population.

Beshear was pleased that Obama named southeastern Kentucky earlier this month as one of his "promise zones," making the area eligible for additional federal grants and other economic help. But he's especially tickled that the state has just "jumped" to 10th in the country in Education Week's survey of student achievement. That's up from 34th.

Not only has Kentucky embraced the new national education standards (which is the term of art for information and skills students are expected to master at each grade level), but the state last year became the first to answer Obama's call to raise the age at which students can drop out of school — to 18 from 16.

"Whereas decades ago, education was a cause for embarrassment in Kentucky, today Kentucky's really on the cutting edge of education reform," Beshear says.

Meet Me In The Middle

Some political observers in Kentucky believe that Beshear has been pushing more progressive policies in his second term because he can't run again for governor. (His son, Andy, is running for state attorney general next year.)

Others think Beshear has his eye on a spot on the next national ticket or perhaps a Cabinet post.

Whatever the governor's personal ambitions, his comfortably high personal approval ratings have shown that his largely conservative state can be governed in a fairly progressive fashion.

"We have to make a decision whether we're going to be a progressive, modern, forward-looking state," says Greg Fischer, Louisville's Democratic mayor. "My hope is that we come to this common-sense middle of moderation. That's what most people want."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.

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