Politics & Government

Republicans take the Kentucky House after 95 years of Democratic control

Republicans achieved the trifecta in Kentucky politics Tuesday, wresting control of the state House from Democrats in a landslide to complement their rule over the governor’s office and state Senate.

“The people of Kentucky have been heard and they want a new direction for the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said an ebullient Gov. Matt Bevin, who is expected to benefit mightily with a GOP-led House committed to his conservative agenda.

Republicans last led the chamber in 1921. Going into Election Day, the Kentucky House was the only law-making chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats, who held a 53-47 majority.

Longtime House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, was among 17 Democratic incumbents swamped in the Republican wave. Stumbo has been in the House since 1980, except for four years to be state attorney general from 2004-2007. He has been speaker, the top leadership job in the House, since 2009.

Even a Republican challenger whom GOP officials denounced in September defeated state Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville. Dan Johnson, the bishop of Heart of Fire Church in Louisville, won by less than 200 votes. Party officials had asked him to drop out of the race after he posted offensive pictures on Facebook that depicted President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as apes.

“Tonight, history has been made in the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said House Republican leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown, who is expected to be elected House speaker in the 2017 General Assembly that begins in January.

At a victory party in Louisville, Bevin and Hoover sported red caps that bore #newmajority in white lettering.

Republican control of the state House is a boon to Bevin and his conservative causes. He said new legislators will talk to their constituents to decide “the first steps of the new House.”

Bevin was particularly pleased with the ouster of Stumbo from the state legislature, telling reporters that he expresses “good riddance” to Stumbo.

“He has been a thorn in the side in any number of good people for political reasons,” Bevin said. “I’m not going to miss him one bit and I don’t think the people of his district are going to based on the incredible drubbing he received.”

In an apparent reference to Stumbo in his victory speech, Bevin said “I’m listening to a little bell over here. If I wanted to be a snarky person, I would probably say something like ‘Ding, dong, the’ but I’m not going to go there. That would be petty. That would be petty and small. But all I can is it is about time. Truly it is about time. It is about time.”

Hoover said Kentuckians at the polls “made their conservative values heard loud and clear,” admitting that even he didn’t think Republicans would win by such a large margin.

“I never did think we could get above 60” seats, he said. As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, the GOP led Democrats 64-35, with one seat still too close to call.

The GOP win breathes new life into dozens of proposals that have been repeatedly approved by the Republican-led Senate only to die in House committees in recent years. Many of those bills touch on hot-button social issues, such as abortion, religious freedom and transgender bathrooms.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said there also will be “a new direction in a lot of fiscal policies.”

“I think it will have some impact on social policies but overall I think the fiscal policies and the economic dynamics of this state will change dramatically and for the better,” Stivers said.

A key campaign strategy for Republicans was to link Democrats with President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who are unpopular in the state. In particular, Republicans highlighted Clinton’s comment in March that she would put coal companies out of business as the nation moves toward renewable energy sources. Clinton also said she wanted to create new economic opportunities for current coal workers, but the political damage had been done, especially in coal-producing counties.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Sannie Overly, who also is a state representative from Paris, said she applauds the work of all Democratic House candidates, “who faced an intense barrage of negative advertising from out-of-state millionaires contributing large sums of cash against them.”

“It was extremely difficult for any Kentucky Democrat to overcome the Trump tide at the top of the ticket,” Overly said. “No matter what, Democrats will continue to fight for Kentucky families; specifically education, health care and jobs.”

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, said the GOP win means “a Republican state legislature can work with Gov. Bevin to truly move our state forward and enact many long-needed, common-sense reforms that will greatly benefit all Kentuckians.”

He called it “a historic win that will soon be felt throughout the Bluegrass State.”

Republicans have been working on taking over the House since McConnell met with state GOP members in December 2014 at the Galt House in Louisville.

He told them he had just won re-election to the U.S. Senate by a large margin but the GOP was not making much headway into taking over the state House.

McConnell also used a political action committee that had backed him to raise money for Republican House candidates this year. He also put in $150,000 from his leadership PAC.

Now, Republicans rule Frankfort. The only Democratic executive officials left in state government are Attorney General Steve Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics

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