by Joseph Gerth, @Joe_Gerth –
FRANKFORT, Ky. – A day after increasing their majority in the Kentucky House, Democrats were confident they could continue to hang on to the chamber when the general election rolls around in November.
That’s despite the presidential election presenting Republicans with federal issues that are expected to be more friendly to them than the state issues surrounding new GOP Gov. Matt Bevin.
“Obviously, we did it when Barack Obama was on the ballot, and it can’t be tougher than that,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said.
But House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said presidential election years are a different animal. “I think if you go back and look, we have a pretty good track record of picking up seats in presidential election years.”
He noted that Republicans are running in more districts than ever before.
In Tuesday’s election, the Democrats were able to hold onto the two Democratic seats vacated when Bevin appointed former Reps. John Tilley and Tanya Pullin to higher-paying government jobs. And they also were able to claim one Republican seat centered in Scott County that had been held by Ryan Quarles, who resigned after he was elected agriculture commissioner.
Republicans, who hoped to capture at least three of the seats, won only a GOP-friendly district in Boyle and Casey counties.
Democrats now hold a 53-47 majority. The new members could be sworn in as early as Friday.
In winning the special elections, Democrats talked about Bevin’s budget, which includes 9 percent cuts likely to hit the state colleges and technical schools hard, as well as other programs people depend upon.
Steve Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said the Democrats may be able to use those issues again in November if large parts of Bevin’s budget go into place and voters start to see how those cuts are affecting them.
And he’s not certain that the timing of the election means Democrats are doomed to minority status. He said the district maps should benefit Democrats because they drew the boundaries to help their own members.
Additionally, he said, voters in Kentucky have shown in the past that they’re willing to split tickets. “We’ve gone a generation and federal votes for Republicans haven’t always trickled down to local races.”
Traditionally, presidential election years and federal election issues have not been terribly kind to Democrats in Kentucky.
Even though Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996, he did so with pluralities of votes – the last Democrat to win a majority in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Kentucky also has become more Republican in recent years with voter registration. Voter performance also has swung to the right.
Although Clinton won the state twice, University of Kentucky Professor Al Cross, a former political writer for the Courier-Journal, said Hillary Clinton could pose a problem for the Democrats here.
“Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee barring something highly unexpected,” he said. “She doesn’t have the political appeal that her husband did…and though there is a reservoir or regard for Bill Clinton, she’s fading.”
But Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, argues that Clinton is far and away a better candidate than Donald Trump, who is looking more like the Republican nominee every day. Trump won the Kentucky Republican caucus on Saturday with 36 percent of the vote.
“It’s obviously going to depend on who the nominees are as far as what the dynamics are this fall, but if it’s Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I’ll take my chances with Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Stumbo also noted that many of the Democrats have been elected time and again. “The people don’t believe we’re all swept up in Washington ideas and all that drama there. They know us as Kentuckians, they know us as neighbors.”
One problem the Democrats face, however, is the ability to raise money.
The best fundraisers for a party apparatus are often governors and U.S. senators. Democrats have neither, so some of the responsibility will fall on labor unions.
Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, said labor unions worked hard throughout the state for Democrats on the four special elections, and he acknowledged that more pressure will be on the unions to perform for the Democrats in the fall.
“Of course, it will be more difficult to run maybe 15 or 20 full-blown campaigns in November, but we fully intend to do it and we’ve got the capacity to do it, we’re just going to get it together and crank it up and do it again,” Londrigan said.
But he acknowledged that much of the labor money will be going to the presidential race. “But our national organization, our state organizations are completely committed to doing what is necessary here in Kentucky,” Londrigan said.