Larry Dale Keeling: Kentucky GOP has reason to celebrate after the primary

GOP has chance of big gains in House

Herald-leader columnistJune 3, 2012 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — Spin time. Democrats first, because they have more spinning to do after Uncommitted's strong upset bid in their party's presidential primary.

Voter turnout was low.

More Kentuckians voted for President Barack Obama than for Republican Mitt Romney, and 33 percent of Republican voters turned their backs on the guy who wrapped up the party's nomination a few days later.

Obama's energy and environmental policies don't play well in the coalfields.

Obama's support for gay marriage doesn't play well much of anywhere in a conservative state.

Race.

True. All true.

And the latter three may give Kentucky Democrats a false sense of security because their pool of candidates this fall is mostly white, mostly conservative, mostly pro-coal, mostly anti-gay marriage and mostly running as far away from Obama as possible. Except we all know Republicans will do everything possible to convince voters every Democratic candidate is Obama's lackey.

(Democrats could counterattack by portraying every Republican candidate as Senate President David Williams' lackey, since his unpopularity across the state rivals Obama's. But that's probably too sensible a strategy for the Kentucky Democratic Party to employ.)

Now for the Republican spin.

Hmm. Does jumping for joy count as spin? Nah, I didn't think so.

How about predicting a 12-seat pickup in the state House? Yeah, that could be overstating the case a bit. But a slight exaggeration in a moment of exuberance is understandable, particularly when it appears the moment won't be ending anytime soon.

This will be a good year for Kentucky Republicans and a tough one for the state's Democrats. And the biggest impact will be felt in the state House.

In congressional races, only the 6th District rematch between Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and Republican Andy Barr has any aura of suspense. One or two seats could flip one way or the other in the state Senate, nowhere near the change it would take to put Republican control of the chamber in doubt.

Ah, but the numbers in the House have Republicans drooling.

Start with the 29 incumbent Democrats facing challenges in the fall, compared to 10 incumbent Republicans still at risk in November. Add four seats in conservative parts of the state being vacated by retiring Democrats, all of which should be in play for Republicans. By contrast, just three of the five seats opened up by Republican retirements have drawn Democratic candidates. Given the conservative nature of those districts, a Democratic win in any of the three would be considered an upset.

Incumbents have talked voters into electing them before, some of them many times over. Beating an incumbent is never easy, which is why the 12-seat prediction seems overly optimistic to me.

However, with the seats of the four retiring Democrats in play, Republicans only need to knock off a handful of Democratic incumbents for a gain of five to seven seats. And that seems very doable this year, even if Republicans lose one or two of their own incumbents in the process. And if Republicans do change the numbers from 59-41 in favor of the Democrats to 54-46, 53-47 or 52-48, a world of possibilities open up for them.

Three or four conservative Democrats switching parties could give them a House majority. Making a deal with a few ambitious Democrats, as Senate Republicans did in the 1990s ouster of former Democratic President John "Eck" Rose, could give them effective control of the chamber even if they don't hold majority leadership positions. More than likely, it would also hasten the day when they gain a real majority.

If any of these scenarios plays out, House Democratic leaders have no one to blame but themselves. They could have passed a redistricting plan that was both more D-friendly than the existing one and constitutional.

But they couldn't settle for good enough. They had to get cute and go for more, which got their plan tossed by the courts. As a result, they and members of their caucus could soon find themselves with their butts in a sling.

Reach Larry Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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