For 26 years, Democrat Hubert Collins has represented a state House district deep in Eastern Kentucky.
Buoyed by his affable nature and stature as the chamber’s longtime Transportation Committee chairman and well-known for 35 years as a high school and college basketball official, Collins turned back various political challenges over the years to keep his seat in the 97th House District, which includes Johnson, Morgan and Wolfe counties.
Then came Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and voters turned out Collins and 16 other House incumbents Tuesday.
The number of Democrats in the 100-member state House dropped from 53 to 36 while Republican ranks swelled in the chamber from 47 to 64, giving the GOP control for the first time since 1921.
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“That’s quite a change, isn’t it? We go from 47 and a few short hours later you are at 64,” said House Republican Jeff Hoover of Jamestown, who is expected to be elected to the top position of House speaker when the 2017 General Assembly begins in January.
The list of ousted incumbents includes House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg, Natural Resources and Environment Chairman Fitz Steele of Hazard, Agriculture and Small Business Chairman Tom McKee of Cynthiana, Tourism Development and Energy Chairman John Short of Mallie, State Government Chairman Brent Yonts of Greenville, and veteran lawmakers Tommy Thompson of Owensboro and Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville.
Many of the Democratic losses, said Collins, can be blamed on the race for president.
“Working people are mad and upset. Times aren’t good, especially in coal country in Eastern Kentucky,” said Collins.
“Lots of people voted straight Republican ticket to protest Clinton and her comment in the campaign about putting coal companies out of business,” he said. “Trump had long coattails in many state House races as a protest vote against Clinton.”
Trump won big in his district, said Collins, noting that Trump outpaced Clinton 8,000 to 1,254 votes in his home county of Johnson.
“Over in Martin County, it was 3,503 for Trump and only 363 for Clinton,” he said.
Yonts, an attorney who has been in the House since 1997, said 57.3 percent of the voters in his home county of Muhlenberg voted straight Republican ticket.
“No way I could win with that happening,” he said. “The total vote was reluctantly pro-Trump and much anti-Clinton.”
Political consultants in the state agree with Collins’ and Yonts’ assessment of why Democrats were hurt so badly in the state House.
“The biggest factor was Donald Trump’s popularity and Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity,” said Danny Briscoe of Louisville. “Nobody was predicting that Hubert Collins would get beat because he’s always been a good candidate.”
In his years in Kentucky politics, Briscoe said he has seen the trend that “Kentuckians always think the grass is greener on the other side.”
“They think change will be good but change does not always occur,” Briscoe said. “Trump, the candidate of change, got as much as 70 percent of the votes in some places in Kentucky. That helped Republicans regain the state House.”
Some Democratic candidates, such as Stumbo, unsuccessfully tried to vilify Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, especially criticizing him for his policies on higher education and health insurance.
“I don’t think the governor was an issue at all in most House races,” Briscoe said. “Greg Stumbo was hurt with the protest vote against Clinton and President Obama and that he really doesn’t live in the district that much and sends his daughter to a school in Lexington.”
Stumbo was not available for comment Wednesday.
After complaining for years about federal policies that hurt the coal industry, Republicans must now do something to stem the tide of job losses in Eastern Kentucky, Briscoe said.
“Republicans no longer have Obama and Clinton to use against Kentucky Democrats,” he said.
Briscoe also said Democrats were hurt in the House because there no longer is a Democrat in the governor’s office to help them raise campaign funds.
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Sannie Overly of Paris said Democratic House candidates “faced an intense barrage of negative advertising from out-of-state millionaires contributing large sums of cash against them.”
Her counterpart, Republican Party chairman Mac Brown of Louisville, though, said Kentuckians simply “rejected the liberal policies of the Obama administration as well as the outdated politics of the Democrats in Frankfort in favor of a brighter future.”
Going forward, Democrats’ best chance for regaining a majority in two years is to highlight how they would have goverened differently than Republicans, said Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons of Richmond.
“Gov. Bevin is not universally loved, so Democrats can regroup for the House races in two years,” he said. “They don’t need to stand in a circle and shoot each other now. They need to keep a watchful eye on how Republicans govern.”