SPRINGFIELD — Derinda Osbourne had a question for Democrat Jodie Haydon.
How does he differ from Republican Jimmy Higdon in the fierce race for the state Senate that has statewide — and possibly national — political implications, she asked the campaigning Haydon.
The race, which voters in five counties that lie in the heart of the Bluegrass State will decide Dec. 8, could spell further erosion of the nearly decade-long Republican control of the state Senate.
It also could help determine the fate of expanded gambling in Kentucky and, consequently, the future of two of the state's leading politicians — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Senate President David Williams, a Republican — who differ on the controversial issue.
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Some observers also say the special election will affect the way state legislators redraw the boundaries of U.S. Congressional districts in Kentucky after next year's national census, since the party in control of the Senate will want redistricting favorable to its candidates.
For all these reasons, interest is high in the special Senate election.
When Haydon, a former state House member who runs a construction company in Bardstown, got Osbourne's question, he pounced on it with his standard campaign line.
"I'm the one who can help this district," Haydon said. "Mr. Higdon can't. He has to answer to David Williams, and Williams has been a dictator for Kentucky. We've got to get beyond this gridlock."
A day earlier, Higdon, a Lebanon grocer who has been in the state House since 2003, got to answer a similar question.
"There's a world of differences between us," Higdon said during a stop in Campbellsville. "Jodie Haydon voted for $1 billion worth of taxes when he was in the legislature, while I voted for $400 million worth of tax relief.
"And Haydon said at a Farm Bureau forum that he was going to Frankfort to pass the governor's agenda. He called me a lap dog for David Williams, which is not true. He's going to be a lap dog for Steve Beshear."
In these cool, waning days of autumn, Haydon and Higdon are traversing the 14th Senate District in search of votes for the special election to replace Republican Dan Kelly of Springfield.
Kelly left the seat that covers Marion, Mercer, Nelson, Taylor and Washington counties to accept a Beshear appointment to a circuit judgeship.
Beshear is trying to put the district in the Democratic fold to wrest control of the Senate from Williams, whom the governor says has been the roadblock to his campaign promise to expand gambling in the state.
Beshear has campaigned in every county in the district for Haydon.
If Beshear and his fellow Democrats win the seat, they will continue their quest to chip away at GOP control of the Senate and get closer to expanded gambling. Democrats have won the last two special elections for the Senate.
With a Haydon victory, Republicans will hold only a razor-thin 19-18 majority in the chamber. If Democrats then pick up another seat, or if a Republican aligns with the Democrats, Williams could lose his leadership position.
On the other hand, a Higdon win would be a big boost to Williams' control and possibly make Beshear vulnerable in his re-election bid in 2011.
'Out of his mind'
Williams is actively campaigning for Higdon. The Senate president bristles when he hears Haydon refer to him as a dictator and talk of Senate gridlock.
"Yes, I have stopped tax increases, but on every major issue I have had input from Democratic leaders," Williams said.
"Jodie Haydon is ridiculous, out of his mind, when he says there has been gridlock. We even let an expanded gambling bill go to committee this year, but the committee voted it down.
"What's really happening here is that the governor wants to give the horse industry a monopoly by allowing slots machines solely at racetracks and Jimmy Higdon thinks the people should get to vote on the issue through a constitutional amendment."
Higdon voted against an expanded gambling bill this year in the House that would have allowed video lottery terminals at the tracks.
He said he thinks it would have been challenged in court and that it did not offer enough money for the state treasury.
"Where do I stand on gambling?" Higdon asked. "I support a constitutional amendment etched in stone with where the VLTs actually will be and where the money from them will go.
"Eighty percent of the people in my district want a constitutional amendment. The people should get to decide this at the polls."
But Higdon declined to say how he would vote if the issue ever were put on a ballot to the people. "That's personal," he said.
Horse industry money
Haydon agrees with Beshear that the horse industry needs help now and that it's time to stop money from Kentucky gamblers going to casinos in neighboring states.
"I'm not pro-gaming or a proponent of casinos, but I would vote for gaming at the existing race tracks," Haydon said.
On the question of a constitutional amendment on the issue, Haydon said he supported a vote by the people on the issue "when it was valid. We have to do something now and not wait another two or three years."
Several leaders in the horse industry have contributed to Haydon's campaign. They include William Farish of Lane's End Farm, Churchill Downs President Robert Evans, Kentucky Downs owner Ray Reid and Red Mile co-owner Frank Antonacci.
Haydon reported last week that his campaign has raised nearly $240,000, an amount that keeps it on pace to be one of the most expensive Senate races in the state.
Higdon said last week that he expects Haydon's campaign will spend $2 million, much of that from the horse industry.
But the public won't know until next year when tax returns are filed.
Dale Emmons, Haydon's campaign manager, counters that it's not clear how much The Family Foundation, a conservative non-profit group that opposes gambling, has spent in the race.
Kent Ostrander, a spokesman for Say No to Casinos, said The Family Foundation, which he works closely with, held "informational meetings" in the district, "but it is not pushing any candidate."
Though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district — 54,306 to 24,448 — it is a conservative district. Republicans have controlled it since the 1991 election of Kelly.
Political heavyweights have flocked to the district to campaign for their candidates.
Besides Beshear, Haydon has received support from former Governors Brereton Jones and Julian Carroll. He expects former Gov. Martha Layne Collins to campaign for him this week.
The top two GOP candidates in next year's U.S. Senate race — Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Bowling Green eye doctor Rand Paul — are helping Higdon. Paul is to attend a fund-raiser Monday night in Bardstown for Higdon.
The pace of the race is expected to intensify in its final days. Much is riding on it.