FRANKFORT — Central Kentucky voters rejected an attempt by Gov. Steve Beshear to erode Republican control of the state Senate Tuesday, choosing the GOP's Jimmy Higdon over Democrat Jodie Haydon in a special Senate election.
The election — one of the most expensive legislative races in state history — marks a setback for Beshear and the horse industry, which had hoped to advance a proposal to allow electronic slot machines at racetracks by narrowing the Republican majority in the Senate to one.
Higdon, a Lebanon grocer who has been a state House representative since 2003, garnered 56 percent of the vote. He defeated Haydon, a Bardstown construction company executive who served in the House from 1997 to 2004, by more than 2,400 votes in the 14th Senate District of Marion, Mercer, Nelson, Taylor and Washington counties.
Higdon replaces Republican Dan Kelly of Springfield, who resigned from the Senate in October to accept an appointment by the Democratic governor to a circuit judgeship.
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An ecstatic Higdon attributed his victory to "a great team effort, my family and wonderful grass-roots support throughout the district." He carried every county except Nelson.
Though he was outspent, Higdon said it was "great strategy" by the state Republican Party to nationalize the race. His ads often attempted to tie Haydon with Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, particularly on the issue of health care.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, called the decision to focus on national issues shrewd and suggested the race may be a bellwether beyond Kentucky's borders.
"I think the district reflects the current national mood," McConnell said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement that Higdon's election is "a positive sign of additional Republican victories to come, not only in Kentucky but nationwide, as we move forward to elections in 2010 and beyond."
Haydon was not available for comment, but his campaign manager, Dale Emmons, said Higdon "simply had a solid base of support."
Emmons said Higdon "made good use of his Right to Life endorsement late in the campaign, though my candidate also is pro-life."
Haydon has not made any decision yet on whether he will file to run next year for a full four-year term for the seat. Higdon said he definitely will seek re-election.
Beshear and Democrats had hoped the election would further erode Senate President David Williams' nearly decade-long control of the state Senate. But Republicans hold a 20-17 margin over Democrats, and independent Bob Leeper of Paducah usually sides with Republicans.
The governor and the horse industry had hoped another Democrat in the Senate would make the chamber more receptive to a proposal for slots machines at racetracks, which is opposed by Williams, R-Burkesville.
Beshear issued a statement Tuesday night congratulating Higdon.
"The Republican Party was successful in their efforts to nationalize this race," Beshear said. "However, tonight's results will not deter me from continuing to fight for the needs of hard-working Kentucky families across the state.
Williams declined to comment about the race.
But Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson said he hopes "the election puts to rest a pretty ugly chapter in the term of a governor who thinks he can buy state Senate seats."
Robertson was referring to Beshear's practice of appointing Republican senators to various positions and then using money from the horse industry to try to elect Democrats.
"No amount of money can subvert a Senate race, and I hope this governor finally understands that," Robertson said.
Haydon reported raising $333,455 for his race through Nov. 23. That did not include $212,794 in "in kind" services such as polling and advertising spent by the state Democratic Party for his campaign and nearly $300,000 a horse industry group spent on TV ads in Lexington and Louisville to help Haydon in the race.
Higdon reported in late November raising $131,499 for his campaign, although he also benefited from spending by other Republican groups.
Efforts to reach various leaders in the horse industry for comment Tuesday night were not successful.
Higdon voted against an expanded gambling bill earlier this year in the House that would have allowed slots at tracks. However, he voiced support for a constitutional amendment that spelled out where slots could be located and where money from them would be spent. He declined to say how he would vote if the issue ever were put on a ballot to the people.
Haydon agreed with Beshear that the horse industry needs help now and said it's time to stop money from Kentucky gamblers going to casinos in neighboring states.