In northern Kentucky, a glimpse into the GOP voters who may be tricky for Trump

A Cincinnati suburb helps tell the story of the electorate as 2024 vote looms.

In northern Kentucky, a glimpse into the GOP voters who may be tricky for Trump
ABC News
January 18, 2024, 6:05 AM

CAMPBELL COUNTY, Ky. -- Mike Combs, a Kentucky native, considers himself a Republican, at least on paper. But these days, he isn't often voting like one.

The owner of a self-storage company, Combs told ABC News he's conservative, especially around fiscal issues, and would consider voting for GOP. But he said he's been turned off by the increasingly hard-line culture war message of the national party -- leading him to mostly cast ballots for Democrats, including newly reelected Gov. Andy Beshear, while still supporting some Republicans in 2022 at the state level.

"The noise that's argued about today, overall, is divisive rather than solution-finding. And am I still a Republican? By registration, certainly. But by actions of late, I'm probably not on the graph chart, especially on social issues," Combs said. "I just believe that if you believe the mantra of the Christian faith, or whatever, you care about people. People deal with people; you care about them."

It's exactly people like Mike Combs who illustrate the electoral challenges for a changing GOP and help tell the story of this northern Kentucky county. Campbell County is both suburban and rural, encompassing a mishmash of key communities in the country's polarized political landscape.

For all of those sharp divisions, however, Combs and other Campbell County residents told ABC News on a recent reporting trip for the "Your Voice, Your Vote" series that people in the area are just "nice." It's a dynamic they said was more representative of the neighboring Midwest -- and innately averse to Donald Trump's habit of coarse, often offensive rhetoric.

Still, Campbell County voted for the former president by a roughly 25-point margin in 2016 and then a smaller, 18-point margin in 2020 -- while Beshear won the county by more than 5 points in 2019 and expanded his margin to 8 points last November on his path to cruising to reelection.

Education and geography, rather than race, gender or income, are more and more important to defining the bases of both parties, which each face their own challenge at the top of the ticket.

Combs, and voters like him, offer both parties a clue as to how they can improve their fortunes heading into a 2024 presidential race that is shaping up to be a rematch between Trump and Biden.

The public remains deeply divided on Trump -- driven either to embrace or denounce him -- and rival Joe Biden's own popularity has seriously eroded in the last four years as voters push for new Democratic leaders. The White House also faces persistent criticism of its handling of inflation and immigration.

PHOTO: The top three counties of Kentucky are three counties near Cincinnati where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was either able to win or narrow his losses.
The top three counties of Kentucky are three counties near Cincinnati where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was either able to win or narrow his losses.
ABC News Photo Illustration
PHOTO: A man is seen walking down a sidewalk in northern Kentucky.
A man is seen walking down a sidewalk in northern Kentucky.
ABC News

College-educated suburbanites, particularly college-educated white people, were once core to the GOP base but have turned decisively toward Democrats since Trump's rise starting in 2015. At the same time, Republicans, led by Trump, have drawn enormous support from rural and non-college educated white voters -- including those who had once been key to Democratic victories.

The northern portion of Campbell makes up part of the Cincinnati suburbs, including liberal enclaves with trendy stores and bars in places like Newport and quaint houses in neighborhoods like Fort Thomas. Farther south, though, the county becomes significantly more exurban and rural, with houses more spread out -- and more likely to vote Republican.

Combs, who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 before jumping ship in 2016 for the first time to back Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, said he started becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party's messaging about a decade ago when he saw conservative lawmakers attack teachers' pensions as part of a controversial push for reforms to the system.

"When they started going after that, that became a real decisive point," Combs told ABC News. "And I said many times that you take away that fishhook to stay invested in a program and in school, in a community, you're going to find shortage down the road."

PHOTO: Mike Combs, a Republican in northern Kentucky, sits down for an interview with ABC News.
Mike Combs, a Republican in northern Kentucky, sits down for an interview with ABC News.
ABC News

Combs said he came to his combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism in part because of his status as a business owner, telling ABC News, "every reform [and] regulation finds our front door."

"It's rudimentary, fundamental, that you have to have cash to pay the bills, right?" he added.

Combs said he grew up middle class in northern Kentucky, ultimately working his way up after college through various business ventures. He now lives in Alexandria with his wife and high school sweetheart. They share an adult son.

He said that the financial loan he was able to get as he started out with his own company fueled his compassion on social issues: "That's the foundation of my liberalism -- pay it forward." Combs cited issues like gay marriage and easing poverty and was particularly animated by abortion access.

"It's hard to comprehend that a bunch of, in our circumstance in Kentucky, mostly older white males would weigh in without medical consideration of the realities of what happens in life," he said. "I think most folks who get an abortion, unless we walk in their shoes, we don't know the circumstance."

But his repugnance at the national GOP brand ramped up under Trump -- especially on abortion and education -- and continued to escalate when it became clear just how deep into the party Trump's beliefs had seeped.

"I've been veering away from it because, you're running for a county commissioner office, I really kind of get offended when you say the 2020 election was stolen. The guy that ran the elections in Campbell County is a Republican. So are you implying that he's part of the vast ...," Combs said, trailing off with a chuckle. "No, no. What's our tax rate? Where's our investment? What roads are we going to do?"

Kentucky Democrats pointed to Beshear as a model of the kind of leader that can seize on these Republican frustrations with the party's current brand, even in blood red states and even if the public remains -- at best -- apathetic about Biden, according to polling.

PHOTO: Gov. Andy Beshear campaigns before Kentucky's gubernatorial race in November.
Gov. Andy Beshear campaigns before Kentucky's gubernatorial race in November.
ABC News

First elected in 2019 against a historically unpopular Republican incumbent, Beshear, a former state attorney general and son of a former governor, developed a reputation as a nearly non-ideological technocrat as he dealt with devastating floods and tornadoes on top of COVID-19.

His daily pandemic press conferences, go-everywhere playbook and announcements of economic development all are believed by experts to have helped him drive up the margins in Democratic-friendly areas and make inroads in places that Trump handily carried in 2020 -- an exception to the new rules of how rural and suburban areas have been voting.

"We know Andy Beshear. We invited him into our homes during COVID. We trust him. We want his calming, steady force there, and we like him. And so, that is how he has really been able to break through and to win over people," said state Rep. Rachel Roberts, the last Democrat representing northern Kentucky in the state legislature.

Some Republicans, for their part, see Beshear's victory as another data point in a broader lesson learned from underperformances in non-presidential elections in 2018, 2022 and 2023: Trump repels swing and highly engaged voters.

"There is a cohort of voters who are deeply dissatisfied with Biden, they don't think the Democratic policies are helping. And yet, they're still willing to vote Democrat because they don't like Trump's influence on our politics," said strategist Scott Jennings, who volunteered for Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron's campaign against Beshear last year.

"Obviously, we're going through this now in the presidential primary," Jennings said. "[Trump's] very popular in the primary, and I know there's polling that looks pretty good for him right now against Biden. But this was a warning."

Nonetheless, the president faces major obstacles on a path to reelection, too, Jennings said. Some of those issues are suggested by the continued string of poor polling Biden has received and his anemic approval rating.

Jennings pointed specifically to perceptions about Biden's age and stamina, which he has tried to dismiss. "Not even policy, I'm just talking about people believing he's up to it," Jennings said.

He also pointed out that in recent Kentucky races, the major candidate most closely aligned with Trump -- Cameron -- fared the worst, while other conservatives succeeded around the state.

Not all is lost for Republicans, Combs said: He would still consider voting for them, especially at the local level but also at the national level -- if the right candidate comes along.

Of the current 2024 primary field, Combs mentioned former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who just ended his campaign) as potentially earning his vote as the party's nominee, though he lamented the chance of that ever happening. Trump maintains a double-digit lead in polls of the base.

"It seems like right now, they're all playing for a second-place position waiting for the calamities that [Trump's] facing to hit him, and then now they got the inside track. I would consider it at that point," Combs said.

PHOTO: Mike Combs, a Republican in northern Kentucky, plays guitar in his home in Alexandria, Ky.
Mike Combs, a Republican in northern Kentucky, plays guitar in his home in Alexandria, Ky.
ABC News

For now, though, Combs is planning on voting for Biden in a hypothetical race against Trump in November.

That could be a lonely place to be in northern Kentucky, even given Beshear's relative rout in his recent reelection: Biden would have to drastically overperform his 2020 showing to get close to winning Campbell County next year, and his margins last time were even worse in nearby Kenton and Boone counties.

But as the 2024 race looks set to slog on for 10 more months, people in northern Kentucky say they aren't letting those divisions disrupt their daily lives or their relationships with neighbors -- another clue about how the looming presidential contest won't necessarily darken everything around it.

"Maybe there's a little bit of that Mayberry feel of like, let's just not talk politics. And I think that's how we all just kind of get along, because, again, especially for this community, our shared values are our kids, education, community," said Crimson MacDonald, the chair of the Campbell County Democrats. "And I think we're all so reliant on one another in raising our kids and just managing our lives that it doesn't matter."

"There's a few people it does, definitely," MacDonald said. "But ultimately, I think we connect on the values part that even though we're in a place right now politically where partisanship is hyperbolic and people are digging into their corners. When it comes to day to day, if their kid needs to get picked up, they don't care if I'm a Democrat, I don't care if they're Republican."

Underscoring the point, Combs' self-storage business sits next to property owned by Chuck Heilman, a friend and more traditional Republican voter.

Combs and Heilman both told ABC News about discussions they have had about politics and lawn signs they place on their property, including times they've asked to put signs for Democratic or Republican candidates on each other's land.

Even when they disagree, both said they're able to keep the talks civil -- and never try to interfere with whatever lawn signs are put up on their side of the property lines.

"When you're talking to somebody, you have to give them the opportunity to give their opinion, and you have to listen to their opinion. That doesn't mean you have to agree with it," Heilman said. "And I think being the polite society we are here, I think that goes a long way to giving people the opportunity to express their views and our opinions. And if you disagree with it, that's fine. That doesn't mean you need to be disagreeable in the process."

"Even if we really, really disagree on who the opponent is to each other, I would never really infringe, to say 'No, you take that sign down no matter what,'" Combs said. "So, yes, it's a good-neighbor thing."