Louisville defends and defies its status as a southern city

“You ask the people around here, they’ll tell y’all it’s the South. But your government’ll yell ya it’s the Midwest.” That’s what the waitress at a small cafe in Louisville told us when we asked her about the region, rolling her eyes a little as she began to answer. She emphasized “your,” making sure we knew that the federal government did not speak for her, or for her city. That attitude defines Louisville more succinctly and accurately than any article ever could, but we’re going to try anyway.

The Louisville metro area spans about a dozen counties collectively known as Kentuckiana on either side of the Ohio River in Kentucky and Indiana. While most of the region’s 1.5 million residents live on the Kentucky side south of the river, about a third live on the Indiana side to the north. And while Indiana is generally considered a midwestern state by most standards, Kentucky’s status has long been debated by social scientists and geographers.

Downtown Louisville

For starters, Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War —  states with slaves that didn’t secede from the union. But the entirety of Kentucky lies above the 36’30” line that allowed slavery only south of the line in new states except for Missouri. But because Kentucky was already a  state, it was grandfathered in, and stayed in the Union with the caveat that slavery would remain legal within its boundaries. Of course, this caveat was discarded during the war by the Emancipation Proclamation, and slavery was abolished within the state.

While the confederacy had to deal with the admittance process and Reconstruction, Kentucky never had to go through the program officially. But the economic impact of the newly freed slaves hit the state hard, as Louisville was a major crossroads for escaped slaves heading from the south into the free state of Indiana.

Indiana has also been a safely red state, though it never shifted. Having been a free state, it leaned Republican all along, and stayed safely in their hands after the party shift in the 1960s. Kentucky, on the other hand, had been Democratic when they were the party of slavery, staying in their camp until the 1960s when the South as a whole shifted to the GOP after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Louisville’s status as a crossroads was cemented, however. The entire state of Kentucky save for two counties went for Donald Trump in 2016, and Louisville’s Jefferson County was one of them.

A sculpture in downtown Louisville

Not only did Trump absolutely dominate the general election in Kentucky by a 2-1 margin, but his win in Indiana was nearly as strong — nearly 20 points separated him from Hillary Clinton. In every county in Kentuckiana his win was at least as strong, even approaching 3-1 in some areas. The keys to Trump’s victory was a combination of the strong southern values and heavily rural areas throughout Kentuckiana and beyond.

But Louisville proper went to Clinton by about 15 points, driven by the heavily diverse population — the most racially and religiously diverse city for hundreds of miles. The economy in Louisville has also been much stronger than the rest of the region, being extremely diverse as a major shipping and transit hub. Contrast this with the surrounding areas, generally heavily rural areas, with blue-collar workers, most of whom are white. Additionally, distrust of the federal government runs deep here, and Trump’s anti-establishment credentials were a major part of his popularity here.

But in Louisville proper, Clinton’s numbers were similar to President Obama’s in 2012, and Trump fared worse than Mitt Romney, with third-party candidates picking up about 3 points more than in the previous cycle. So while the rest of Kentucky went two percent higher for the GOP in 2016, Jefferson County’s Republicans lost a few points. Many locals chalk this up to Trump’s higher negatives rather than to Clinton’s positives.

The local Democratic Party is hoping to build on this success, but most know that trying to flip Kentucky as a whole is quixotic at best. They are banking on the country’s changing demographics to push the state their direction in the future — but that was type of the conventional wisdom in 2016 that led to Clinton’s surprising defeat.

400 West Market, the tallest building in Louisville

Indiana is, perhaps counterintuitively, a more likely target for Democrats to try to flip. Growing and increasingly diverse cities like Indianapolis as well as suburbs near Chicago and Cincinnati, are starting to push the state in a decidedly leftward direction — even managing to briefly flip it for Obama in 2008 by the slimmest of margins. This short-lived flirtation with swing state status was pushed back hard in 2012 and 2016, however, as Romney and Trump respectively dominated the state.

Southern Indiana has been the key to the success of the GOP here. Despite Louisville’s influence south of the river trying to push them left, the Kentuckiana region of Indiana has moved even further to the right in recent years, primarily as pushback against social issues losses by the GOP on abortion and same-sex marriage. And there is little distinction to be made between southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, despite their statuses as midwestern and southern regions respectively.

Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville

Look no further than the notoriously anti-gay marriage Kentucky clerk Kim Davis as an example — she was a Democrat. While her views on marriage equality are considered extreme in most areas of the nation, her politics were actually left of center enough that she registered with the liberal party in rural Kentucky.

So for now, Louisville looks to be the lone blue speck in a sea of red in the region, even as their Democrats take pride in being both southern and mistrusting the government on everything from civil rights to what region they should be classified as. But make no mistake, this is a southern area, no matter what your government’ll tell y’all.

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