FRANKFORT — Republican leaders nominated Rep. Jimmy Higdon on Tuesday to run for the open 14th Senate District seat, which was vacated Monday by Dan Kelly.
The executive committees of the Republican Party in Mercer, Marion, Nelson, Taylor and Washington counties met Tuesday night in Campbellsville and chose the businessman from Lebanon as their nominee for the Dec. 8 special election.
Higdon's likely opponent will be former state Rep. Jodie Haydon of Bardstown. The Democratic nominating committee will meet Saturday to make its selection.
Higdon said Tuesday he is ready for what promises to be an expensive election that focuses heavily on the expansion of gambling at horse racetracks.
"I think I will be outspent," Higdon said. "I am the underdog going in, but I will win. I like being the underdog."
Kelly was appointed Monday by Democratic Governor Steve Beshear to an open circuit court judgeship in the 11th Judicial District, giving Democrats a chance to compete for another Republican-held seat in the Senate.
This is the second time in four months that Beshear has appointed a member of the Republican majority in the Senate to a state position. Republicans say the governor is trying to erode their majority in the Senate, where Beshear's efforts to get video lottery terminals at racetracks have been thwarted.
The Democrats won a seat in August that was vacated when Beshear appointed Republican Charlie Borders to the Public Service Commission.
With Kelly, the Republicans had a 20-17 edge over Democrats. One independent also caucuses with Republicans.
Democrats and horse industry leaders have said they are ready to take back the seat that Kelly held since 1991.
Both Haydon and Higdon had filed paperwork to raise money for a campaign before Kelly resigned.
Haydon, who retired from the state House in 2004 after serving for eight years, supports the expansion of gambling, saying that it could help the state's dire financial situation.
"I'm not so much pro-gambling, as I am pro-business," Haydon said. "We need to find some new sources of revenue so we can better fund education and other needs."
Higdon said Tuesday that he supports an effort by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, to put before voters a constitutional amendment that would allow casino-style gambling at racetracks.
"I will support letting the people vote," said Higdon, who was first elected to his House seat in 2002.
If Haydon is selected on Saturday, he will likely receive help from the horse racing industry. Democrat Robin Webb, a former state representative, was able to raise about twice as much as Republican opponent Jack Ditty in the race for Borders' Senate seat, according to Sept. 30 campaign finance reports.
The horse industry started its own advocacy group, called a 527 by the IRS. But it's not clear how much money that group spent on the Webb race. They do not have to report fund-raising figures until 2010.
Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, said his caucus would support whoever is nominated by Democratic leaders in the district, which has voted for Republican state lawmakers in recent years even though a majority of voters are registered as Democrats.
"We're going to contest that seat as aggressively as we possible can," Worley said. "It's really a Democrat district, but we're not taking anything for granted."
Beshear also said Monday that if asked, he would campaign in the Senate district.
Meanwhile, Higdon and Republican State Party Chairman Steve Robertson said voters in the Central Kentucky district are concerned about issues other than gambling.
"I think Jimmy is a well-rounded candidate," Robertson said. "He's a small-business man who understands how to create jobs and how to keep rural Kentucky competitive."
Higdon, who owns a grocery store and has interests in other small businesses, said he also understands that people want leaders who are transparent and good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Both Higdon and Haydon pledged to run positive, issues-oriented campaigns.
"I will not say anything negative about my opponent," Higdon said Tuesday. "He's a very good person."
Haydon agreed. "I don't intend to do any of that," Haydon said. "I say just stick to the issues."