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Where Have All the Democrats Gone?
Alben Barkley, Senator and VP, grew up in Graves County.

If former United States Senator and Vice President Alben W. Barkley could return 100 years after his losing the gubernatorial primary in 1923 in his first statewide campaign, this might be one of the first questions he might ask. Barkley, who grew up in Lowes, a small community located in Graves County, and Clinton, certainly would find it difficult to understand, as Berry Craig's recent Courier-Journal opinion column, that Democrats, who dominated Jackson Purchase politics for most of the 20th century, failed to file for any of the region's legislative races this year.

Until the 1990s, the Purchase, now one of the most Republican areas of the commonwealth, had provided large majorities for Democrats who lost only five gubernatorial races to their Republican rivals during the century. Area politicians benefited greatly in Democratic circles. Barkley, unquestionably, was the most important of them, elected to the US senate in 1928 and serving as its majority leader for the last three terms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the Democrats most sought-after orators, he catapulted onto to Harry Truman's ticket in 1948 following an inspired keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. His presidential ambitions fell short first in 1944 when a dispute with FDR over a presidential veto caused the president to pick Truman over the Kentuckian that year. Truman assumed the presidency early in FDR's fourth term when he succumbed to a heart attack. Barkley carried Truman's endorsement into the 1952 Democratic National Convention, but age became a key factor and Adlai S. Stevenson, Barkley's distant relative, earned the right to run against Dwight D. Eisenhower.

There were a number of other prominent Jackson Purchase politicians who made names for themselves. Harry Lee Waterfield, a local farmer and newspaper publisher from Clinton was among the most important. Most recall Waterfield as an ally of Albert B. "Happy" Chandler. In fact, Waterfield entered politics as an anti-Chandler state representative in 1937. When Republican Simeon Willis was elected governor in 1943, Waterfield campaigned for and won the right to serve as house speaker for all four years of Willis' term. That set him up to make a strong bid for governor in 1947, but he lost in a close race to Earle C. Clements. Leftover bitterness between Clements and Waterfield made him available as Chandler's running mate in the 1955 Democratic primary by draining off support in western Kentucky for Clements' candidate, Bert Combs. For his loyalty, Chandler supported Waterfield in the 1959 race, but popular dislike for Happy gave Combs the victory in the primary. Still hoping to gain the governor's mansion, Waterfield once again joined Happy as his running mate. But Chandler lost to Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt, however Waterfield won his race and was a tremendous asset for Breathitt who narrowly defeated Louie B. Nunn in the general election. Waterfield harbored hopes that the lieutenant governor spot might be a springboard for a successful third bid for governor.

Instead, a split early in Breathitt's administration led to the selection of Paducahan Henry Ward as the administration candidate in the 1967 race. He easily defeated Chandler and Waterfield in the primary, ending their political careers. Ward, a plucky writer for the Paducah Sun-Democrat, entered politics early in life with election to the state house in 1933. He was a regional leader in efforts to reduce tolls on bridges, secure cheap electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kentucky Dam, and acquire property from TVA after its completion in 1944 for state parks. As an administrator in the Clements and Wetherby administrations, he gained recognition as the father of the state's outstanding state park system. He took over for Clements as state highway director early in the Combs administration, and played a large role in the development of the state toll road system, including the Jackson Purchase Parkway, and the routing of I-24 through the Jackson Purchase. None of this could overcome Chandler's support of the Republican nominee, Louie B. Nunn.

Jackson Purchase Democrats, disappointed by the failed gubernatorial races of Barkley, Waterfield, and Ward, would be rewarded in the 1970s just as the nature of commonwealth politics were undergoing significant changes by the decline of party factions and the emergence of television and self-financed campaigns.

Julian Carroll, shown at right, the two-term Paducah state house speaker during the Nunn administration, threw his hat in the ring for lieutenant governor in the 1971 election. Running in the primary with former governor Bert Combs, who lost to Wendell Ford, Carroll won his primary and general election contests. Paired with Ford, Carroll convinced him to leave office early to run against incumbent GOP Senator Marlow Cook. Ford's win, coupled with Cook's decision to step down early, allowed Carroll to become far western Kentucky's only governor in December 1974. The following year, he was elected for a full term with a landslide vote. He was the last of the commonwealth's "strong governors" exercising extraordinary influence over the operations of the general assembly that led one state senator to say at the time of Carroll: "'My gawd, a cockroach couldn't crawl across the Senate floor without an OK from the governor stamped on his back!'"

There were other Jackson Purchase politicians who rose to high office such as Adron Doran from Wingo who was house speaker during the Clements and Wetherby administrations before a long career as president of Morehead State University; Paducahans Charles Burnley, house speaker during Chandler's second term as governor, and Fred Morgan, a powerful voice in the state house who served as majority leader during Carroll's first term as speaker when Paducah was home to that chamber's top two leadership positions; and Shelby McCallum, house speaker from Benton during Breathitt's administration. The area's political clout was brought to bear on regional issues such as removing tolls on bridges in the 1930s, enabling the area to take advantage of cheap electricity from TVA for rural electrification and economic development, development of state parks on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes, and improving rural roads and construction of modern limited access highways.

Democratic fortunes began to change soon in the Jackson Purchase. Republicans made significant inroads by exploiting divisive social issues (God, guns, and gays) to their benefit. Nationally, Ronald Reagan ran well among conservative Democrats. The GOP broke through in electing a few of their candidates to the state legislature. In 1994, amidst a tremendous backlash against President Clinton led by soon-to-be speaker Newt Gingrich and the clever guidance of Senator Mitch McConnell, the GOP took and kept the first congressional district. The district had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War and had been represented since 1913 by congressmen from the Jackson Purchase. With Republican Ed Whitfield from Hopkinsville and James Comer from south central Kentucky, the concerns of far western Kentucky have had to compete with areas for the attention of its elected congressmen. This trend has continued with the new congressional map which takes the first district into Frankfort (now Comer's home).

As the influence of Jackson Purchase Democrats has diminished over the years in the highest political offices of the commonwealth, the area has not been rewarded with powerful leadership positions in the Republican party. Current Secretary of State Michael Adams from Paducah is an exception. Perhaps more significant in the eyes of a revivified Alben Barkley would be the lack of a political agenda to move the Jackson Purchase and western Kentucky economy forward so that the young people would choose to remain in the area.

Author George Humphrey's book, The Fall of Kentucky's Rock: Western Kentucky Democratic Politics Since the New Deal, was selected for a 2022 Kentucky History Award, presented by the Kentucky Historical Society.

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