FRANKFORT — Shortly after a Senate committee last month killed a bill to allow slot machines at Kentucky racetracks, former Democratic Gov. Brereton Jones told more than 900 disappointed advocates gathered at Keene-land that a "revolution" was needed in the Senate.
Jones, a Thoroughbred breeder and chairman of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, focused his ire on Senate President David Williams. The only way to topple a dictator, he said, is with a revolution.
Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who made expanded gambling a major issue in his 2007 campaign, is taking steps to foment such a movement, but it's loaded with risk.
"I think he's walking on thin ice," said Williams, a Burkesville Republican who has presided over the Republican-controlled Senate since 2000.
Williams noted that Beshear failed in early 2008 when he got involved in a special election to replace former Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, who was elected Beshear's lieutenant governor. Republican Brandon Smith, who campaigned against gambling, won the race and has been loyal to Williams in the Senate.
Still, Beshear hopes he took a big step last week toward knocking Williams from power.
He announced that Republican Charlie Borders of Grayson was leaving the Senate and his powerful position as budget committee chairman to accept the Democratic governor's appointment to the Public Service Commission at $117,000 a year.
Beshear quickly called an Aug. 25 special election for the 18th District seat in northeastern Kentucky that Borders had held since 1991.
Republican Jack F. Ditty, a Russell dermatologist, will face off against one of two potential Democratic challengers: state Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, or Todd Eastham, a former member of the Greenup City Council.
A Democratic nominating committee is expected to make its choice this week.
If Democrats win the district, the Republican margin in the Senate would drop to 20-17-1. There is one independent in the chamber, Bob Leeper of Paducah.
Williams appointed Leeper, a former Republican, to replace Borders as the powerful chairman of the Senate budget committee last week.
If Democrats win in the 18th District, Williams expects Beshear soon afterward to appoint Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, to a judgeship.
That would set up a special election for Kelly's 14th District in Central Kentucky. If Democrats captured it, the GOP margin would be a razor-thin 19-18-1.
Democrats could then try to pick off yet another Republican Senator. Or, more likely, they would attempt to persuade a couple of Republicans to throw their allegiance to a candidate for Senate president who is more palatable to Democrats.
There is precedent for such action.
In a stunning coup in January 1997, Senate Republicans and five dissident Democrats took control of the chamber and ousted longtime Senate President John "Eck" Rose, a Democrat from Winchester.
Sen. Larry Saunders, D-Louisville, and four Eastern Kentucky Democrats bolted from their party to lead the coup.
Senate members elected Saunders president, but Republicans effectively controlled the Senate even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans 20-18.
Two years later, two Democratic senators switched to the Republican Party, giving the GOP a 20-18 majority.
With a hug and a handshake, Saunders had to turn over the presidency to Williams, marking the first time a Republican held the chair.
Williams has not let go, and he doesn't plan to do so any time soon.
"The governor can appoint people to his administration, but he still can't appoint people to the legislature," he said.
Publicly, Beshear has little to say about his efforts to win control of the Senate.
He declined to say last week whether he is trying to get Paducah attorney Glenn Denton to run against Leeper. Denton could not be reached for comment.
He also declined to address rumors swirling in the Capitol in recent days about GOP senators who might accept a Beshear appointment, a move that could enhance their state retirement benefits.
One of them, Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said no one in the Beshear administration has contacted him about a state job, and he would have no interest in discussing that.