by Ryland Barton –
Lurking beneath the headlines of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s bids for president, there’s a battle waging for Kentucky’s state House of Representatives. Democrats have much to lose — it’s the last legislative chamber controlled by the party in any Southern state. Republicans have everything to gain — if they net four more seats, they’ll have power over the entire legislative process in Frankfort.
This has all happened before. Republicans crusaded for control of the state House in the 2014 and 2012 elections but came up short. And though Republicans have trounced Democrats in most federal races for about 20 years now, the state still has a preponderance of Democrats registered to vote and recent House elections have still shown Democratic bastions in rural parts of the state.
GOP leaders say this year is different because they fielded candidates in 91 of the 100 House district elections. And they say they have momentum after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s election last year, along with the advantage of having the state’s chief executive on fundraising duty for the state GOP and local candidates.
In one sense, House races are highly local affairs — each of Kentucky’s House districts represent about 43,000 people, giving candidates and legislators the opportunity to interact with a large number of their constituents and local officials in the area.
But this year, the battle seems to be more about personalities higher up the political food chain than it is about local candidates.
The tradition of trying to tie state Democrats to President Barack Obama has continued, and after Clinton’s quote about putting “a lot of coal miners out of business,” the tradition has continued to the new face of federal Democrats.
Rep. Chuck Tackett, a Democrat from Georgetown, has been targeted by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that’s supporting the election of Phillip Pratt to his district.
“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of business…that’s Hillary Clinton’s plan,” says the voiceover in the RSLC ad. “And now her supporters are bankrolling Chuck Tackett, Why? Tackett voted to expand Obamacare not once, but twice.”
Tackett has only been in office for about 7 months after winning the seat in a special election earlier this year.
Clinton’s coal quote has been ubiquitous in Kentucky political ads this year. It’s helped make Clinton especially unpopular in rural Kentucky, where Republicans hope they can finally crack open some historically Democratic strongholds in Eastern and Western Kentucky.
It’s forced down-ballot Democrats like Owensboro Rep. Tommy Thompson to distance himself from the top of the ticket.
“I’m not responsible to the current president of the United States and I’m not going to be responsible to whoever the next president might be,” Thompson said at the Red, White and Blue Forum in Owensboro last week. “I’m only responsible to the people I’m so privileged to represent in Ohio and Daviess Counties.”
Democrats have gotten some help from higher up the political ladder in the form of those trying to vilify Bevin in hopes that controversy will trickle down to local races.
About a month out from the election, Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo launched an investigatory committee to look into allegations that Bevin froze a road project as payback for a state lawmaker not switching political parties.
Stumbo has defended the move as not being politically motivated.
“I can’t sit by and let these serious matters to go unlooked at or unattended to,” he said.
The committee has met a couple times, keeping the accusations fresh in news outlets.
But Bevin has fought back, trying to flip the narrative by saying that the whole saga shows that Stumbo and House Democrats are desperate to keep control of the chamber.
At stake behind all of this is political control of the House. Democrats have 53 of the 100 seats, meaning Republicans just need four more seats to secure a majority.
And if Republicans win the House, it could signify a watershed moment in Kentucky’s political history — the moment when the state finally completes its transformation into a Republican powerhouse…a dream that has long been on the mind of Kentucky’s senior Republican senator, Mitch McConnell.
“I would love to see us become a beehive of entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses beyond what we have,” McConnell said during a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce forum in August. “That is not a federal issue, it’s a state issue and I hope that at some point the people of this state will finish the job and change the House.”
Democrats still have a majority of registered voters with about 170,000 across the state. Republicans have about 134,000.
Here are some races to watch during the last week before the Nov. 8 election. We’ve included party registration in the districts as well as local results for last year’s gubernatorial election between Bevin and former Democratic Attorney General, Jack Conway.
Democrats Playing Defense
91stDistrict, including Breathitt, Estill, Lee Counties: Democratic Rep. Cluster Howard vs. Republican Toby Herald
Herald was a state representative before losing to Howard by just 14 votes in 2014. Howard is a dean and student ombudsman at Hazard Community and Technical Colleges.
The rural district on the border between Eastern Kentucky and Central Kentucky is a target for Republicans looking to take advantage of rural distaste for Clinton.
Bevin won each of the counties in the district handily in the 2015 gubernatorial election — 63 percent of Estill County’s vote, 50 percent in Breathitt County, 68 percent in Lee County, 56 percent in Madison County and 71 percent in Owsley County.
However, the district still has about twice as many registered Democrats (20,583), as Republicans (9,106).
62nd District, including Owen County and parts of Scott and Fayette Counties.
Democratic Rep. Chuck Tackett was elected during a special election earlier this year that was triggered when Republican Ryan Quarles vacated the seat to become agriculture commissioner.
The Nov. 8 election will be a rematch of the special election; Tackett will face Phillip Pratt, who owns a landscaping business in Georgetown.
An outside group called the Republican State Leadership Committee has targeted the district with commercials tying Tackett to Clinton and Barack Obama. A Democratic group called Kentucky Family Values has gone door to door to try and defend Tackett’s seat.
Bevin won 56 percent of the vote in Owen County and 51 percent in Scott County. The district only includes a small part of Fayette County, which Conway won 55 percent of the vote during last year’s election.
Democrats have a slight advantage with voter registration in the district, with 18,263 registered compared to Republicans’ 14,405.
92nd District, including Knott, Magoffin Counties and part of Pike County.
Democratic Rep. John Short is trying to fend off a challenge from former Republican John Blanton, a former Kentucky State Trooper.
Short’s name came up during a federal vote-buying investigation earlier this year. A Magoffin County precinct officer pled guilty to buying votes and manipulating voting machines to help elect Short and others during the 2012 election.
Though Short hasn’t been charged or admitted any wrongdoing, the state Republican Party and the Kentuckians for Strong Leadership PAC have attacked Short over the incident.
Bevin won 56 percent of the vote in Knott County and 54 percent in Magoffin County during the 2015 gubernatorial election. The district only includes part of Pike County, of which Bevin won 55 of the vote.
Democrats have a major party registration advantage in the district — 22,674 to Republicans’ 6,525.
Republicans Playing Defense
12th District, including McLean and Webster Counties and parts of Daviess and Hopkins Counties. Republican Rep. Jim Gooch vs. Democrat Jim Townsend
Gooch switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after Bevin became governor last year. As a legislator, Gooch famously proposed a bill that would have made Kentucky a “sanctuary state” from federal carbon regulations.
Townsend has been the judge-executive of Webster County since 1991.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a Republican super PAC, has spent heavily on TV advertising in support of Gooch’s re-election.
During the 2015 gubernatorial election, Bevin won 57 percent of the vote in McLean County and 56 percent in Webster County. The district only includes parts of Daviess and Hopkins Counties, where Bevin won 55 percent and 61 percent, respectively.
Democrats have a major party registration advantage with 21,329 registered voters compared to Republicans’ 10,436.
38th District, which includes parts of Jefferson County: Republican Rep. Denny Butler vs. Democrat McKenzie Cantrell
Butler, a former police officer, also switched to Republican after being a longtime Democrat. Cantrell, an attorney with the Equal Justice Center, defeated longtime Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson in the primary. The district is heavily Democratic and voted twice for President Obama.
Butler says he switched parties because Democrats no longer aligned with his values and he was disappointed with leadership not fighting for more police and firefighter funding.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a Republican super PAC, has spent heavily on TV advertising in support of Butler’s re-election.
Democrat Jack Conway won 58 percent of the vote in Jefferson County, though the district only represents part of the county.
Democrats have the voter registration advantage in the district with 16,140 voters compared to Republicans’ 8,315.
94th District, including Letcher County and part of Pike County: Democrat Angie Hatton vs. Republican Frank Justice
The seat is held by Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs, who was first elected in 2007 and is not seeking re-election. Justice is a former mayor of Pikeville, and Hatton is an assistant Letcher County Attorney.
The district is one in which Republicans are hoping to ride anti-Clinton coattails and sway pro-coal Democrats to vote GOP farther down the ballot. Justice has raised nearly $129,000 in the race and spent $87,000. Hatton has raised about $46,000 in the race and spent about $17,000.
Bevin won 55 percent of the vote in Letcher County during last year’s gubernatorial election. The district only includes part of Pike County, of which Bevin won 55 of the vote.
Democrats still have a major voter registration advantage in the district with 20,583 voters compared to Republicans’ 9,106.
23rd District, including Barren County and part of Warren County: Democrat Danny Basil vs. Republican Steve Riley.
Democratic House Majority Whip Johnny Bell is not seeking re-election, leaving this seat open.
Riley is a retired teacher and school principal at Barren County High School. Basil is a retired attorney from Glasgow.
The district is an example of a rural area that Republicans feel they should be able to take during their campaign to win a majority in the state House. Riley has garnered about $73,000 in contributions from around the state and spent about $58,000.
Democrats have also worked hard to keep the district in their column, with Basil raising about $69,000 and spending $37,000.
Bevin won Barren County with 57 percent of the vote last year. The district only has part of Warren County, where Bevin won 55 percent of the vote.
Democrats have a slight advantage with voter registration in the state — 16,463 voters compared to 12,570 Republicans.
70th District, Including Bracken, Fleming, Mason and Robertson Counties. Democratic candidate John Sims vs Republican candidate John VanMeter.
Democratic Rep. Mike Denham is retiring after 15 years in the legislature, leaving the mostly-rural district in a tossup. VanMeter, an attorney from Maysville, has the won the money war with $98,291.58 in receipts including $58,000 from himself.
Sims, a Fleming County magistrate, has still taken in a sizable $42,846.94.
Democrats have a hefty registration advantage with 20,247 voters in the district compared to Republicans’ 9,552.
Bevin won 54 percent of the vote in Bracken County, 58 percent in Fleming County, 52 percent in Mason County and 53 percent of the vote in Robertson County.