RICHMOND — One of the more closely watched state legislative races this fall is the campaign for the 34th District Senate seat now held by state Sen. Ed Worley, D-Richmond, who is not running for re-election.
The race is significant statewide because Republicans see it as an opportunity to pick up another seat in the Senate, which now has 20 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the GOP.
The 34th District has 39,523 Democrats and 35,191 Republicans. That's the narrowest margin between the two parties in any contested Senate district, so Republicans see it as ripe for the picking, said Jared Carpenter, the Richmond banker and GOP nominee seeking the seat.
"So many people are calling, saying, 'How does it feel to be in the biggest race in the Republican Party in Kentucky?' " Carpenter said. "And I say, 'Well, it felt pretty good till you told me that.'"
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The others vying for the seat are Lee Murphy, a Democrat who served on the transition team to transfer state operations to the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear; and Donald Van Winkle, an independent who ran and lost against Worley and Republican Barry Metcalf in 2006. Van Winkle is perhaps better known as the whistle blower who in 2005 alleged operational failures at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County.
Big guns such as U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and 5th District Congressman Hal Rogers have appeared at fund-raisers for Carpenter, as well as state Senate President David Williams. Murphy has held events that have been attended by Beshear, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, and former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a state senator. Worley has also made calls on Murphy's behalf.
"We know this is a critically important race," Murphy said.
It's also a close race, according to a poll conducted on Sept. 28 and 29 by cn|2, Insight Communications' new public affairs channel. The poll of 452 likely voters showed Carpenter with 35.2 percent of the vote and Murphy with 32.2 percent. Van Winkle drew 6.5 percent.
The district covers Madison, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties. Madison and Lincoln lean Democratic, but Rockcastle is solidly Republican.
Van Winkle, who describes himself as an evangelical Christian, might take some votes from Carpenter, Murphy said. (Van Winkle garnered more than 900 votes in the 2006 race.) Carpenter acknowledged that as a possibility but said core supporters "who believe in what I've got to say" will stick with him.
So far the race has been congenial. "We kinda had a gentlemen's agreement that we were going to run as clean a campaign as we could," Murphy said. "When you're interviewing for a job, you don't go out and tell the interviewer how bad a guy is. You tell them what you can do and how good you are and how you can improve the district."
That agreement held when, after the May primary, it was revealed that Murphy had not paid about $6,500 in property taxes owed by the Internet service provider he founded. Murphy has since paid that debt.
Carpenter said some supporters urged him to run newspaper ads about the issue, but he refused. "I'm not going to drag that through the mud," Carpenter said.
Van Winkle, a vegetable farmer who is attending Eastern Kentucky University to become a middle school teacher, said he opposes abortion and the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 2008, a U.S. Labor Department administrative judge dismissed his suit against Blue Grass Army Depot. Van Winkle claimed his supervisors had reduced his duties and denied him training, hazard pay, overtime and advancement opportunities after he raised concerns about chemical monitoring. He resigned from the depot in October 2006.
Van Winkle said he is running because lawmakers have "lost the ability to say 'this is good' and 'this is bad.' They have no measuring stick. There is right and wrong in this world, and it is absolute. ... I use the Bible in every facet of my life, so why wouldn't I use the Bible to run my state?"
No issue divides the three candidates like that of expanded gambling at racetracks. Pennsylvania has boosted Thoroughbred breeding with purses and incentives fueled by expanded gambling, but the Republican-controlled Senate has generally blocked such efforts in Kentucky. Murphy supports putting video lottery terminals or slot machines at racetracks.
"It's like going to a restaurant, and they can serve you Coca-Cola, but they can't serve you Sprite," Murphy said of the lack of slots at tracks. "I mean, they're already there to gamble. It's a no-brainer. If they're there to gamble, why not give them additional forms of revenue?"
Carpenter and Van Winkle oppose expanded gambling, although Carpenter said he supports putting the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.
"The horse industry has been here — what? — 200 years? I hate to think that the one-armed bandit is what keeps it here," Carpenter said.
Van Winkle says he has doubts that expanded gambling is what the ailing Thoroughbred industry needs.
"They ain't going to rename the Kentucky Derby the Tennessee Derby just because we get slots or we don't get slots," Van Winkle said. "The horse industry ain't going nowhere. I think that's a made-up lie to promote this."
The candidates also differ on altering the state's tax structure.
Murphy supports tax reform, but he is opposed to eliminating personal income tax, as some Republicans have proposed. Expanding the sales-tax structure "would be regressive toward people on a lower income," Murphy said.
Carpenter said the personal and corporate income taxes should be decreased or eliminated. "I would eventually like to see us go to a system where we do away with our income tax and do a sales-tax structure, where everybody pays their fair share," Carpenter said. "The folks who are more wealthy, who are buying more stuff, they're going to pay more taxes on that."
Van Winkle also supports eliminating personal income taxes. "You make sure that everybody is paying and the actual tax burden is disseminated," he said.