ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For decades, the Democratic Party has been losing support from white voters who live in rural areas. In Kentucky, Democrats have held onto those voters longer than the state's neighbors to the south. Now Republicans see an opening. There's a race to replace retiring Democratic governor Steve Beshear this November. Here's Ashley Lopez of member station WFPL.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: To understand current-day political branding in Kentucky, you have to go back to the Civil War.
THOMAS LAWHON: A lot of people here, they are of the same political party their parents were and, of course, their parents. And back in the day, shortly after the Civil War, people used to just go around saying vote the way you shot.
LOPEZ: That's Thomas Lawhon. He's the chair of his local Republican Party in Owen County. And just like a lot of people around here, his politics are a lot like his ancestors'.
LAWHON: My mother was a county chairwoman. My grandmother was a county chairwoman, and my great-grandfather was county chairman at different times. So that covers probably close to a hundred years, probably (laughter).
LOPEZ: Owen County is like much of the Bluegrass State. It's rural. It's also very conservative and majority Democrat, which makes Lawhon's job a little tricky. Kentucky-brand Democrats have kept the party in power for decades. There's only been one Republican governor in the past 40 years. But the last time the state's voters backed a Democrat for president was in 1996 when Bill Clinton was on the ballot. Republican operative Scott Jennings thinks this may be the year Kentucky Republicans take the governor's mansion.
SCOTT JENNINGS: We're trying to see if Republicans can break through and get those rural Democrats to vote Republican in the constitutional races, governor all the way down.
LOPEZ: Kentucky's gubernatorial race this year is between Democrat Jack Conway, Republican Matt Bevin and Independent Drew Curtis. It's pretty much a tossup.
Al Cross runs the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. He says there are a lot of reasons why Republicans haven't managed to take control of the state yet.
AL CROSS: It has the smallest African-American population of any former slave state - only about 7-and-a-half percent.
LOPEZ: For that reason, Cross says civil rights issues didn't divide conservative Democrats in Kentucky like they did throughout the rest of the South. But other issues have been splintering Kentucky's Democrats lately. Herb McKee is a Democratic activist and farmer in Henderson County, another rural county in Kentucky that's also majority Democrat.
HERB MCKEE: I believe a Kentucky Democrat is one who has strong conservative fiscal values but tends to be moderate when it comes to social values and tolerant to a great degree with the exception of a couple of hot-button issues.
LOPEZ: Those exceptions, McKee says, are issues such as abortion and gay marriage, issues that the national Democratic Party has embraced.
MCKEE: And I believe the Republicans have done a great job of driving that wedge into the heads of the Democrats around those two issues.
LOPEZ: Those wedge issues have been hurting Kentucky Democrats. Fifteen years ago, Democrats made up two-thirds of the state's registered voters. Now they only make up slightly more than half. Both Democratic and Republican activists argue, though, a lot of this hinges on turnout. This governor's race has been pretty sleepy.
Back in Owen County, Republican activist Thomas Lawhon explains that is his big fear.
LAWHON: If we have a lackluster election, if people are registered Democrat, they will tend, somewhat, to vote for a Democrat as a default.
LOPEZ: Lawhon says besides registering rural Democrats as Republicans, he's working on simply getting Kentuckians to care about the election. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Louisville.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.