LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Nearly two decades have passed since Louisville last sent a Republican to Congress. Voters have shut the GOP out of the mayor’s office for even longer, with Louisville’s last Republican mayor elected in 1965.
Later this year, Bill Dieruf and Stuart Ray hope to break those streaks.
Dieruf, the mayor of Jeffersontown, won the four-way Republican primary for Mayor Tuesday, and Ray, a businessman, appears to be on his way to winning the party’s congressional primary. Though the race hasn’t been called, Ray received 58 more votes than Rhonda Palazzo, according to the Jefferson County Clerk.
“Given the history of the city and its demographic makeup,” both Republican candidates have a difficult task ahead of them, said Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at UofL.
Clayton cited registration numbers showing that Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one in Jefferson County. The 3rd Congressional District is even more favorable for Democrats. And it’s not just registration. Louisville overwhelming votes for Democrats for Metro Council, state legislature, governor, and federal offices.
Beyond that, Sen. Morgan McGarvey, the Democratic nominee for Congress, and Craig Greenberg, the Democratic nominee for mayor, seem suited to the city, according to one political observer.
“I think they both are pretty good fits for the constituencies that they’re running to serve,” said Republican consultant Tres Watson. “It’s certainly going to be difficult to beat them.”
But both Republican candidates told Spectrum News 1 in recent days that they see a way to thread the needle, while their Democratic opponents insist that they’re not taking the general election lightly.
“We have to win this race in the fall,” McGarvey said in his victory speech Tuesday. “We have to keep the Democratic majority in the House and ensure that Kentucky continues to have a progressive voice in Washington.”
How Democratic is Louisville?
There are nearly 360,000 registered Democrats in Jefferson County and just over 204,000 Republicans. That’s a 1.76 to 1 ratio. The 3rd Congressional District overlaps with most of the county, but some areas in the eastern part are in the 4th Congressional district. Those areas are more Republican, putting the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the 3rd Congressional seat at 1.85 to. 1.
“Ray is going to have to run a very disciplined campaign if he’s going to have a shot,” Watson said.
“He’s going to have to figure out a way to stay in that sweet spot where he gets the bodies to help turn out the vote on the activist side of the right, without turning off the center left and moderate voters he’ll need to switch from [Rep. John] Yarmuth,” he said.
Ray is currently seeking that sweet spot, telling Spectrum News 1 that he’s a “reasonably minded Republican” eager to win over voters concerned about public safety and economic development.
“I’m a conservative Republican and I have values accordingly, but I’m not an angry Republican,” Ray said. He touted his bipartisan credentials, including serving as chair of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. He also said he does not believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Flipping a seat from blue to red, especially one that Joe Biden won by 20%, will take a lot of money and a lot of help from national Republicans, said J. Miles Coleman with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Ray may not count on that.
“I would say the seat wouldn’t be a target just because Republicans have a lot more attractive targets,” Coleman told Spectrum News 1. With Republicans focused on flipping control of the U.S. House, their focus will be on races they see as more winnable.
Coleman also suggested that Republicans may have signaled their intent to yield the 3rd District to Democrats during redistricting. Rather than carve up the district, the way other states did with urban, Democratic areas, the GOP largely left the 3rd District alone.
Why the mayor’s race may be different
In his previous campaigns for mayor of Jeffersontown, a small city in southeast Jefferson County, Dieruf ran without an R next to his name. That election, like many other mayor’s races across Kentucky, is non-partisan.
Following his win in the Republican primary Tuesday, Dieruf said he is used to working with Democrats and Republicans as a non-partisan mayor, making him “best suited to work with everybody come Jan. 1, as mayor of Louisville.”
Clayton said the issues at play in the mayor’s race could make it more likely for a Republican to break through. Rather than talking about hot button culture war issues, candidates are focused on things like public safety, which both Dieruf and Greenberg have named their top primary.
When it comes to Louisville electing a Republican mayor, Clayton said, “I could see that happening before I could see it on a Congressional level.”
Don Parkinson, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, is angling for both seats. “Louisvillians of every political persuasion are ready for changes in leadership to move our city forward in a different direction,” he said.
One thing Republican candidates have helping them are weak Democrats in office. Mayor Greg Fischer, who is currently in the final year of 12 in office, has turned into a punching bag. Watson said he did a poll in 2020 that showed nearly half of Louisville wanted Fischer impeached or to see him resign. Given that, Watson said, Greenberg will need to make “very, very certain he has separated himself from any connection to Fischer.”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s job approval rating is hovering in the low 40s and midterm elections often see the president’s party suffer losses.
These factors may give Republicans hope, but the party will need many more things to go right for them to win either seat in November. “Lightning can always strike,” Watson said.