A pro-gambling issues group backed by the horse industry raised and spent more than $840,000 last year on the two most expensive state legislative elections in Kentucky history.
The money spent by Keep Our Jobs in Kentucky on state Senate candidates that support expanded gambling came from racetracks and horse farms. It went into two state Senate special elections engineered by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear as he tried to topple Senate President David Williams, a Burkesville Republican who opposes slots at racetracks.
After a slots bill sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, died in a Senate committee during a June special session, Beshear began appointing Republican state Senators to other jobs, which created openings for special elections.
Democrat Robin Webb defeated Jack Ditty to take one of the seats, but Republican Jimmy Higdon defeated Jodie Haydon to keep the other in Republican hands.
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Keep Our Jobs, which ran ads, mailed fliers and polled voters, spent $266,460 on the first race and $482,044 on the second, according to the group, which released its federal tax return Friday.
In all, the group raised $845,500 and spent $842,520.55, much of it — more than $670,000 — on advertising.
The racetracks paid the most. Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Turfway Park and The Red Mile each gave $75,000 to Keep Our Jobs; Kentucky Downs gave $65,000.
The group's spending was on top of thousands that racetrack and horse-industry connections gave to Webb and Haydon in direct campaign contributions.
Previous filings have disclosed that Webb and the Kentucky Democratic Party spent about $525,000 on her race. Ditty and the Kentucky Republican Party spent about $330,000.
Haydon and the Kentucky Democratic Party spent more than $890,000 on his unsuccessful race, and Higdon and the Kentucky Republican Party spent $328,000.
Combined, almost $3.1 million was spent by both sides on the two elections, making them the state's most expensive.
Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has filed legislation that would require issues groups such as Keep Our Jobs to report contributions and spending on the same schedule as other political groups that are governed by state campaign finance laws.
"The voters have a right to know where the money is coming from when it is trying to affect the outcome of an election," Thayer said Friday. "This should have been disclosed to the voters before the election, rather than in February."
Williams said the extra spending by Keep Our Jobs, which isn't allowed to directly tell voters to support or oppose a specific candidate, made the races more strident.
"They tried to use hundreds of thousands of dollars of their money to try to change the composition of the legislature to give them a monopoly," he said. "That's what frightened people."
However, horse-industry backers said the group's funding shows people are willing to continue fighting for expanded gambling at racetracks.
"We are proud that so many Kentuckians involved in the horse industry decided that they would not sit idly by as our competitors continue to steal our signature industry," said the group's board in a statement released with the tax documents. "The decision to participate in the electoral process should send a clear message that we will fight to protect the thousands of Kentucky families who rely on the horse industry to make a living."
The group indicated that it might remain active in the upcoming election cycle, in which several legislators are facing primary and general election challenges from pro-slots candidates.
"At the conclusion of the legislative session, our organization will determine the best approach to help ensure that Kentucky horse jobs are kept here in the state," the group said.
Meanwhile, a political action committee on the other side of the two campaigns spent about $171,000 on advertising. The Republican State Leadership Committee's Kentucky PAC was funneled small contributions from all across the country, according to documents released by the national group.
But the national umbrella group's monthly IRS filings show $30,000 in donations late last year from Don and Mira Ball, owners of Donamire Farm in Lexington. The group also listed $50,000 from casino corporation Harrah's.
Committee spokeswoman Carrie Cantrell said donations to the group are not earmarked to support specific candidates and the RSLC is not anti-slots.
"Our mission is to elect Republicans," Cantrell said.