Leaders of both political parties expect Democrats to retake seats in the Kentucky House of Representatives on Tuesday, but the question is how many?
Two years ago, Republicans grabbed control of the law-making chamber for the first time since 1921 in an overwhelming victory. The GOP now enjoys a 62-37 super majority, with one vacancy created by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s recent appointment of state Rep. Kenny Imes of Murray as Calloway County judge-executive.
The political climate, though, is much different this year, as Republican lawmakers deal with backlash from teachers and public workers angry with them and Bevin for approving a controversial public pension bill and the governor’s remarks against teachers who left their classrooms to protest the bill at the Capitol.
Republicans counter that they have fully funded the pension system in the last two state budgets, something that didn’t happen under Gov. Steve Beshear.
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On Tuesday, Kentucky voters will decide 90 contested House elections across the state.
Here are five competitive state House races to watch Tuesday night as election results roll in. They may portend what will happen across the state.
88th House District (southeastern Fayette County)
This district immediately became one to watch when state Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, R-Lexington, decided not to seek re-election. The district has more Republicans than Democrats: 20,344 to 18,842.
William Farmer Jr., a Republican tax accountant who represented the district from 2003 to 2013 faces Democrat Cherlynn Stevenson, a non-profit event planner making her first bid for public office. He left office because of problems with rheumatoid arthritis but now says he has that under control.
Stevenson has been endorsed by the Kentucky Educators Political Action Committee, the political arm of the Kentucky Education Association, and KY 120 United, an advocacy group formed after the pension bill passed, “because I have been with teachers all the way, at the Capitol marches, in their corner.”
Farmer, who served on former Gov. Steve Beshear’s tax reform commission and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray’s commission to overhaul police and firefighter pensions, said KEPAC did not interview him this year, as it has in the past, and KY 120 United did not send him a candidate questionnaire.
David Patterson, a spokesman for KEPAC, neither Stevenson nor Farmer was invited to an interview this year. The endorsement was based on their answers to a written questionnaire, Phe said.
KEPAC declined to comment on its reasons for selecting candidates. Nema Brewer, a co-founder of KY 120 United, said her group sent Farmer a questionnaire and he did not return it.
“I personally remember licking the envelope” for Farmer’s questionnaire, Brewer said. The group automatically disqualifies candidates who do not return questionnaires.
In other House races in Fayette County, four incumbents — three Democrats and one Republican — are being challenged.
Democrat Susan Westrom, who has been in the House since 1999, faces Republican Joshua Irvin in the 79th House District. Democrat Ruth Ann Palumbo, who has been in the House since 1991, has Republican Richard Marrs as her opponent in the 76th District. Democrat George A. Brown Jr., who joined the House in 2015, encounters Republican Marianne Weiss in the 77th District.
Republican Stan Lee, a member of the House since 2001, vies against Democrat Josh Hicks in the 45th District.
71st House District (Rockcastle, Garrard and parts of Madison counties)
Both KEPAC and KY 120 United have endorsed Travis Brenda, the Republican, over Democrat Mary J. Renfro of Berea in the 71st House District.
Renfro is a member of the Madison County Board of Education. Brenda, a Rockcastle County High School teacher, defeated House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell of Lancaster in the May Republican primary election.
Brenda’s defeat of Shell last spring has made him the “poster boy” of upset teachers.
32nd House District (in Jefferson County)
A member of the state House since 2015, Republican Phil Moffett has been a voice for conservative causes.
He recently picked up the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity-Kentucky, an advocacy group backed by the wealthy brothers, Charles and David Koch.
Moffett’s opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Democrat Tina Bojanowski, is trying to make the Koch Brothers’ money an issue in the race, but she is well ahead in campaign fundraising. She has raised nearly $70,000 to about $10,000 for Moffett.
She also is trying to appeal to Democratic strongholds, such as unions and teachers. Bojanowski has sharply criticized the process legislators used to pass the pension bill, which involved changing a bill that dealt with waste water issues into the pension measure and approving it in about six hours.
Moffett said he doesn’t know why teachers would vote against him. He was one of the few Republicans who voted against the public pension bill.
Regardless, KEPAC and KY United 120 have endorsed Bojanowski.
87th House District (Bell and Harlan counties)
This Eastern Kentucky district will get a new representative. It is one of 11 around the state in which a Democratic incumbent is retiring. State Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, who has been in the House since 2001, decided to run for mayor of Middlesboro this year instead of seeking re-election.
The candidates seeking to replace him are Republican Adam Bowling of Middlesboro and Democrat Dustin Allen of Pineville.
Bowling, an attorney, is the son of former state Rep. Mike Bowling, who was a strong Democrat.
Allen is a school teacher in the Laurel County system.
KEPAC and KY United 120 have endorsed Allen, making the race another one in which teachers hope to flex their political muscle.
96th House District (Carter and Lawrence counties)
Both KEPAC and KY United 120 support teachers, but they don’t agree on all the races.
For example, KEPAC has endorsed Republican incumbent Jill York of Grayson in the 96th House District. York, operator of Printworks Unlimited, has been in the House since 2009. KY United 120 is siding with Democrat Kathy Hinkle of Louisa, an executive in the Kentucky Child Assault Prevention Agency.
Meanwhile, several teachers in the district have asked KEA to rescind its endorsement of York. KEA has made it clear that it does not make endorsements and has told York to say only that she has been endorsed by KEPAC, which is made up of KEA members.
“I had used KEA’s endorsement for years but I was told this year to make sure I say KEPAC,” said York, who voted against the pension bill but not for a procedural move against it that was backed by House Democratic Leader Adkins. That vote upset some teachers in the district.