The Ashland District
We live in interesting times, politically. In a year full of unprecedented political controversy, one fact is not controversial at all, that the 2018 midterm election is going to be one of the most critical in many a generation. Ever since Donald Trump exploded onto the scene three years ago, the country has been in an uproar, and in a matter of days, the voters are either going to put the brakes on this locomotive or inject enough fuel to carry it over whatever cliff he may choose to head for. God knows the convulsions won’t end, but a trajectory will be set.
Central Kentucky is right in the thick of it. The 6th Congressional District – our district – is a central battleground in this historic race.
Three-term incumbent Republican Andy Barr was safely ensconced in the seat he’d won in 2012 when the Trump phenomenon unleashed a hurricane that he’d undoubtedly hoped to ride out. But the hurricane came ashore here late last year when a Navy fighter pilot named Amy McGrath parachuted in and turned into a force of nature, capturing the attention not only of the district but the entire country. From where Mr. Barr sits, the whole thing must look like an act of God.
Kentucky’s other five districts are relatively serene this year, but ours is in a state of commotion. The race has attracted visits from President Trump, Vice President Pence and former Vice President Biden, and having cost more than $10 million thus far, is now taking its place as the most expensive congressional campaign in state history.
The 6th District is arguably Kentucky’s flagship district, since it not only occupies the central part of the state, both physically and culturally; but as a historically moderate district, it also occupies the central part of the political spectrum.
The district has never been represented by radicals or disruptors from any party, and though generally conservative and very friendly to Republicans, it has a habit of supporting Democrats quite as often. The Democratic candidate carried it in both the 2015 race for governor and the 2016 race for U.S. Senate.
More important still is the historical role this district has played in national politics, having been represented over time by some of the state and nation’s most consequential politicians and statesmen.
Kentucky has had a 6th district for 216 years, but it’s jumped around a lot, appearing in Northern, Eastern, Western, and Central Kentucky at various times. What I’m referring to in this article, in the historical sense, is what used to be called the Ashland District (in honor of its most famous representative, Henry Clay), encompassing the Bluegrass region and containing Fayette and Woodford counties, with neighboring counties coming and going over the years (Fayette and Woodford are the only lifetime members of the district). We’ve been called the 6th District since 1934, but before that we were the 7th (1862-1932), 8th (1842-62), 10th, 3rd, 5th and 2nd District.
Wikipedia offers a comprehensive list of 6th District congressmen, featuring those who served in something called the “6th District,” regardless of where it was located at any given time. So I had to dig a little deeper to come up with a more appropriate list, featuring those who were elected from the actual Ashland District in the Bluegrass region, whatever its numerical designation was at the time. That list contains one vice president, one Speaker of the House, one U.S. Attorney General, two military generals, seven governors, nine U.S. Senators – and one Kentucky Wildcat (Scotty Baesler).
(W stands for Whig, A for American, C for Constitutional Union, U for Union, R for Republican, and D for Democrat) Ashland Congressmen
Alexander D. Orr 1792-1797
John Fowler 1797-1806
Benjamin Howard 1806-1810
William T. Barry 1810-1811
Henry Clay 1811-1814
Joseph H. Hawkins 1814-1815
Henry Clay 1815-1821
Samuel Woodson 1821-1823
Henry Clay 1823-1825
James Clark 1825-1831
Chilton Allan (W) 1831-1837
Richard Hawes (W) 1837-1841
Thomas F. Marshall (W) 1841-1843
Garrett Davis (W) 1843-1847
Charles S. Morehead (W) 1847-1851
John C. Breckinridge (D) 1851-1855
Alexander K. Marshall (A) 1855-1857
James B. Clay (D) 1857-1859
William E. Sims (D) 1859-1861
John J. Crittenden (U) 1861-1863
Brutus Clay (U) 1863-1865
George S. Shanklin (C) 1865-1867
James B. Beck (D) 1867-1875
J.C.S. Blackburn (D) 1875-1885
W.C.P. Breckinridge (D) 1885-1895
William C. Owens (D) 1895-1897
Evan E. Settle (D) 1897-1899
June Ward Gayle (D) 1900-1901
South Trimble (D) 1901-1907
William P. Kimball (D) 1907-1909
James C. Cantrill (D) 1909-1923
Joseph W. Morris (D) 1923-1925
Virgil Chapman (D) 1925-1929
Robert Blackburn (R) 1929-1931
Virgil Chapman (D) 1931-1948
Thomas Underwood (D) 1948-1951
John C. Watts (D) 1951-1971
William P. Curlin (D) 1971-1973
John B. Breckinridge (D) 1973-1979
Larry J. Hopkins (R) 1979-1993
Scotty Baesler (D) 1993-1999
Ernie Fletcher (R) 1999-2003
Ben Chandler (D) 2004-2013
Andy Barr (R) 2013-
The top vote-getters
In looking over the data from past elections, courtesy of the Secretary of State’s website, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 vote-getters since 1974. That is, who holds the records for receiving the highest number of votes in an election for congress from this district.
The congressmen who have amassed the most votes are the last five. That’s largely explained by population growth; there have just been a lot more people available to vote here since 1980. But within the statistics for the past 40 years, we can also tease out some insights into where we have fitted in to national trends. Most of these totals reflected congruity with winning presidential candidates, except in 2004. Two of them (2006 and 2014) occurred in midterm elections, when voters seem to have been highly motivated against the sitting administration. But in the majority of cases, this district’s vote has been in line with the national consensus.
Top Ten Vote Getters
2008 Chandler 203,764
2016 Barr 202,099
2004 Chandler 175,355
2006 Chandler 158,765
2012 Barr 153,222
2014 Barr 147,404
2000 Fletcher 142,971
1992 Baesler 135,613
1988 Hopkins 128,898
1984 Hopkins 126,525
Of these last five congressmen, four have run for governor. Of those, the two Republicans, Hopkins and Fletcher, began their careers in the General Assembly; the two Democrats, Baesler and Chandler, started out in executive posts, Lexington Mayor and Attorney General, respectively. Hopkins and Fletcher ran for governor while holding the 6th District seat; Baesler and Chandler won the seat after running unsuccessful campaigns for governor, taking it over from Hopkins and Fletcher, respectively. Hopkins and Chandler shared the attribute of being comfortable in Congress, offering no indications of any ambitions elsewhere (when Hopkins did run for governor at the end of his career, his campaign took on the aspect more of a retirement plan than a bold challenge). Baesler and Fletcher were more restless, and jumped at the chance to move up after three terms in congress (Fletcher was elected governor; Baesler won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.) Barr, the current incumbent, hasn’t yet indicated any desire to run for another post, but should he stave off the 2018 challenge, the way would be open to him.
Still more of the District’s tendencies are revealed when we compare the winning margins in each race over the past 25 years:
1992 Baesler 47,797
1994 Baesler 21,053
1996 Baesler 25,768
1998 Fletcher 1 3,823
2000 Fletcher 48,804
2002 Fletcher 73,869
2004 Chandler 55,639
2006 Chandler 131,750
2008 Chandler 92,386
2010 Chandler 648
2012 Barr 11,784
2014 Barr 49,114
2016 Barr 73,371
Over this period, Chandler’s margins were the highest, indicating that he continued to be a very solid candidate until the Obama association pulled the rug out from under him. Baesler made a strong showing in his first race for congress in 1992, then lost altitude as the GOP launched its conquest of the state (by the time he left office in 1999, all of Kentucky’s congressional districts were held by Republicans). Interestingly, Barr’s electoral trajectory has remarkably imitated that of his mentor, Fletcher. It shows increasing victory margins in nearly identical increments as voter confidence in them accumulated over three terms. Fletcher was elected governor during his third term; Barr is now at the end of his third term, and fighting for a fourth.
The frustrating feature of any congressmen’s career, especially nowadays, is how much their political fortunes are tied up in circumstances beyond their control, namely the presidential administration they serve under. For Hopkins, Baesler and Fletcher, holding this seat was a fairly uncomplicated proposition, in that they found themselves in sync with presidential administrations that were also popular in the district. Hopkins benefitted from association with Reagan and Bush 41, Baesler thrived under Clinton’s umbrella, and Fletcher basked in the glow of Bush 43. Each left the office voluntarily. Chandler and Barr, on the other hand, have demonstrated a different dynamic. For as long as the Republican Bush administration lasted, Democrat Chandler remained popular and was easily reelected. And when Chandler’s party won the White House in 2008, he registered the highest vote total of his career. But in the very next election he barely survived, and was defeated two years after that. The same scenario is playing out now for Republican Barr, who had been safe in his seat while Democrat Obama was in office, then reached his highest-ever vote total as his party won the presidency in 2016. Now, like Chandler in 2010, he suddenly finds himself up against the wall in a fight for survival. So it seems that the 6th District is happiest these days in opposition to whoever’s in the White House.
The Year of the Woman
2018 has featured a historic surge of female candidates nationwide, so this year is being billed in the pundit world as another “Year of the Woman,” like 1992. Since most of the women in this onslaught are Democrats, the GOP is unable to meaningfully participate in the movement. Accordingly, the Congressional Leadership Fund, one of the Republican Super Pacs supporting Barr, launched an ad a couple of months ago, featuring the GOP’s favorite villains-du-jour, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, displaying appropriately hideous expressions, with the statement that “Liberal elites look down on Kentucky.” The subtext being, “Women From Hell, and don’t you know Amy McGrath is one of them!”
Interestingly, since winning his seat, Andy Barr’s opponents have always been women; he hasn’t defended his seat against a male Democratic nominee yet.
In its 226-year history, Kentucky has sent exactly two women congressmen to Washington. Both of them were Republicans. The most recent one was Anne Meagher Northup, who served Louisville’s 3rd District from 1997-2007. She was a driven high achiever, who served with accomplishment in the state legislature before winning her seat in congress, where she became a rising star. But in 2006, she found herself in the wrong party in the wrong district at the wrong time, and got swept out of office. She immediately launched a race for governor the next year, against the wounded Ernie Fletcher, but couldn’t quite pull it off. The year after that, she tried once more to get her congressional seat back, lost and retired. She’d been on a trajectory for bigger things, but the political winds had blown away from her. Kentucky’s other woman congressman was Katherine Gudger Langley, from the old 10th District in Eastern Kentucky. She was the daughter of a congressman from North Carolina, and the wife of Congressman John Langley of Pikeville, who was convicted and removed from office in 1926 for violating the Volstead Act, and later wrote an autobiography with a bracing title, “They Tried To Crucify Me.” Aside from being a wife and daughter, Katherine was a force in her own right. She provided much of the vitality behind her husband’s career (one observer was quoted saying “John Langley wears the breeches, but the lady has the brains”) and gained appointment or election to numerous public positions on her own, highly unusual for a woman at the time. After her husband’s conviction, she took on his successor, beat him handily, and served two terms in Congress, 1927-31. She was known for her flamboyant style and magniloquent speech. When her husband was released from prison and made noises about running for the seat again, she shut him down by refusing to step aside “for John or anyone else.” She gained a powerful seat in the party caucus and was rising in influence, but then came the Great Depression, and being a Republican, she was dead meat. So she lost reelection by a nose, retired, and rounded out her career serving as the postmistress of Pikeville.
If Amy McGrath becomes Kentucky’s third woman congressman, she will instantly become a national figure. We know this because she already is one. She has struck a chord and caught a rising tide in a historic moment, and if that tide is high enough to move this district, it could take her very far indeed.