FRANKFORT — After a nasty redistricting fight during the 2012 legislative session, House Republicans pledged to take control of the state's lower chamber this year for the first time in 91 years.
With an unpopular Democratic president at the top of the ticket and a shot at four open seats vacated by retiring Democrats, GOP leaders say they have a strategic advantage on Nov. 6.
"What we are seeing is more and more districts that are not wedded to a Democratic incumbent," said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky. "People's minds are open because they are very frustrated with President Barack Obama and his failed policies."
Republicans hold 41 seats in the House, compared to 58 for the Democrats. There is one open seat vacated by Democrat Fred Nesler, who retired earlier this year.
Although Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 2000, the last time the GOP controlled the Kentucky House was in 1921. Arkansas is the only other southern state with a Democratic-controlled lower chamber.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover said Republicans are hungry, prepared and ready for a tough fight, but he stopped short of predicting that the GOP will win the 10 seats necessary to take control of the House. To do that, Republicans probably will need to win all four open seats that were held by Democrats, defend three open seats held by Republicans and defeat six incumbent Democrats. All Republican incumbents also must hold off challengers.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Hoover said. "But we recruited a lot of good candidates."
Kentucky Democrats say they're taking the House Republicans' threat seriously. For the past year, they have been raising money, recruiting challengers for Republican incumbents and coordinating efforts with the Kentucky Democratic Party and Gov. Steve Beshear, whose approval rating in a recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll was 64 percent.
"Last November, Kentuckians reaffirmed that they want to see continued Democratic leadership in Frankfort," said Matt Erwin, a spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party. "When the polls are closed on Election Day, you will see a strong Democratic majority in the House of Representatives."
There probably will be more money spent this election cycle than previously seen in House races, partly because of independent groups such as the Kentucky Family Values Super PAC, which was created to run advertisements supporting Beshear's 2011 re-election campaign. The group already has sponsored television advertisements in one Western Kentucky House race in Paducah. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, also has given generously to House Republican candidates, more than $65,000 since June.
House Republicans and Democrats also have campaign committees that can be tapped to help candidates. The House Democratic Caucus had raised more than $534,000 and had $206,681 on hand at the end of June. House Republicans had raised $94,602 and had $76,034 on hand heading into July. Also, each state party can use money through its executive committee to pay for polls and campaign materials.
A key campaign strategy of Republicans this fall has been to use mailers and television ads to try to link House Democrats to Obama, who is expected to be trounced by Republican Mitt Romney in Kentucky.
"The air is being sucked out of the room by Barack Obama," Robertson said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Damron counters that state legislative races are viewed as local elections by voters, which blunts any talk of ties to Obama. People in Paducah and Pikeville don't think their state representative knows the president, Damron said.
"These are local races," Damron said. "The people in my district know me. They see me at the grocery store. They see me at church."
Erwin said Republicans tried to tie some statewide candidates to Obama last year, but Democrats won all but one statewide office.
Their differences aside, Republican and Democratic leaders agree on one thing: There are more House races in play this election cycle than there have been in a very long time.
Four of the open seats once held by Democrats are in more conservative Western Kentucky. The other open seat held by a retiring Democrat is in Northern Kentucky, which also tends to vote Republican in national races.
Democratic incumbents facing potentially tough challengers include: Rep. Susan Westrom and Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, both of Lexington; Rep. Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville; Rep. Jim Glenn of Owensboro; Rep. Jeff Greer of Brandenburg; and Rep. Steve Riggs of Louisville. Republican incumbents in potentially tight races include: Rep. David Floyd of Bardstown; Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown; Rep. Donna Mayfield of Winchester; and Rep. Mike Nemes of Louisville.
In Central Kentucky, party leaders are watching several races, including two with first-term Republican incumbents and two where the Republican incumbent is retiring.
■ In the 73rd House District, which includes Clark County and a portion of Madison County, Mayfield faces a tough challenger in Democrat JoEllen Reed. Mayfield was first elected in 2010, when she defeated Democratic incumbent Don Pasley.
■ In the 62nd House District, which includes Scott County and a small portion of Fayette County, Quarles faces Charlie Hoffman in a rematch of the 2010 race. Quarles defeated Hoffman, who had represented the district for 13 years, by less than 250 votes in 2010.
■ In the 36th House District, which includes Garrard County and a portion of Madison County, Republicans hope political newcomer Jonathan Shell, a fourth generation farmer, can keep the district in Republican hands by holding off Democrat Bud Montgomery, the owner of a farm and garden center in Berea. Longtime Republican Rep. Lonnie Napier is retiring.
■ In the 88th House District, which covers a portion of southern Fayette County, the GOP hopes to maintain the seat being vacated by Rep. Bill Farmer. Republican Robert Benvenuti, a lawyer and former inspector general at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, faces Democrat Reggie Thomas, a lawyer.
If Republicans make significant gains on Nov. 6 but fall short of a majority, some expect the GOP to try to convince conservative Democrats to switch parties.
Hoover, however, said he's just concentrating on Nov. 6 for now.
"I am not even thinking about that right now," Hoover said. "I am trying to win ten seats."
Damron, the Democratic caucus chairman, dismissed the idea altogether.
"I think we're going to come out in pretty good shape and maintain our majority," Damron said. "I don't think they're going to get close."
Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com