FRANKFORT — Democrats protected their 10-seat advantage in the state House Tuesday as James Kay defeated two challengers in a special election for Central Kentucky's 56th House District.
Kay's win over Republican Lyen Crews and independent John-Mark Hack gives the Democratic Party momentum going into 2014, when all 100 House seats will be up for election.
Democrats have controlled the House since 1920; Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 2000.
With Kay's victory in the district, which includes Woodford County and parts of Fayette and Franklin counties, Democrats now have a 55-45 majority in the state House. The three candidates were vying to replace Democrat Carl Rollins of Midway, who resigned from the legislature to take a higher education post.
In unofficial results Tuesday night, Kay collected 3,925 votes, Crews got 3,065 and Hack garnered 1,925. Kay took Woodford by almost 700 votes and Franklin by more than 200 votes, while Crews won Fayette by about 50 votes.
The district primarily is Democratic — 18,173 Democrats to 10,140 Republicans and 2,269 in other parties. But Woodford County, where most of the district's voters live, sided with Republican Andy Barr over Democrat Ben Chandler in last year's 6th District race for the U.S. Congress.
Nearly 29 percent of the district's 30,852 registered voters cast a ballot on Tuesday, a turnout that was higher than expected.
In an email, Kay said he was "thrilled by tonight's election, and I thank the voters for seeing past the divisive, Washington-style tactics my opponents threw at our campaign."
Kay said he is "ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work for the people of this district — working not only with Gov. Steve Beshear and the other Democrats in the legislature, but with anyone, regardless of party, who wants to improve the lives of Kentucky families."
Crews said he tried to call Kay to congratulate him but could not reach him.
"I can definitely tell you that we left nothing on the field, and my volunteers and I worked our hardest to communicate our message to voters in the district," Crews said.
Hack said in a telephone interview that he was proud of his race and the voters "who had the courage to break free from what is still a failed two-party system."
"I was outspent 25-to-1 but got nearly 22 percent of the vote — one of out every five voters," Hack said. "That should send a message to party bosses that a lot of people don't like the way things are."
The typical state House race in Kentucky costs about $75,000, but bigger money was in play in Tuesday's contest. Kay reported raising $132,649 for his campaign through June 10. Crews had taken in $68,806 and Hack $23,467.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, an independent political action committee in Washington, D.C., reported spending more than $177,000 in the race. The group tried to tie Kay to President Barack Obama, who is generally unpopular in the state.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, took delight in Kay's victory, claiming it should send a message to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his bid for re-election next year.
"Today's election will be the first shot across the bow by Kentucky voters to Mitch McConnell and his followers that Kentucky is fed up with his brand of partisan politics," Stumbo said. "This faint-hearted attempt by Republicans to make it look like we're Washington has been used to cover up their failures over the last few years. It won't work in this special election, and it won't resonate in next year's elections."
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said Crews made a "tremendous effort."
He said the 45-member Republican caucus would "redouble our efforts toward 2014 in seeking to bring new life and new leadership to the Kentucky House of Representatives."
Kay, an attorney, was criticized by his opponents for his youth. He's 30, and was making his first bid for public office.
Crews, a certified public accountant, was the target of criticism about his work performance during financial problems at the old Woodford Memorial Hospital and Midway College. He narrowly lost a 2010 race for the House seat.
Hack, who was an agricultural official for former Gov. Paul Patton, said he was running to try to fix government problems brought about by both major political parties. This was his first bid for public office.
Hack, in a news release Tuesday, said he was asking the state Board of Elections to investigate why 55 students at Woodford County High School were denied their right to vote in the special election.
He claimed that the students' voter registration cards may have been intentionally filed too late.