After taking a big hit in numbers during the last presidential election, Kentucky's House Democrats are looking to bolster their already sizable majority on Nov. 4. "I'm not willing to predict a number. I think we will hold and gain a little," said Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards.
Democrats, coming off the May 20 primary, were slated to have 64 seats compared to 36 that Republicans held — their largest margin since before the '04 election season. But since May, several seats have opened up because of retirements and resignations.
That has forced Democrats to play defense in a couple of places they didn't expect to last spring, most notably a pair of districts that have a majority of registered Democrats but have been trending Republican in recent elections. Those are:
■ The 22nd District — vacated by Democratic House Whip Rob Wilkey of Scottsville, who resigned after a special session this summer — in Simpson and Allen counties and part of Warren County. Wilson Stone, a 55-year-old farmer and Allen County School Board member, is trying to keep the seat for the Democrats and faces GOP candidate Shawn McPherson, a 43-year old assisted-living-facility executive. Both men are from Scottsville and even attend the same Church of Christ.
■ And the 3rd District in Paducah, which was opened when longtime Democratic Rep. Frank Rasche took a job with the state Education Department. The Democrats nominated McCracken County Commissioner Zana Renfro, while Republicans put up Brent Housman, a financial planner from Paducah.
"The best shots we've got are in those two open seats," said Steve Robertson, Kentucky Republican Party chairman.
He said Republican challengers to freshman Democratic Rep. Jim Glenn of Owensboro and Rep. Royce Adams of Dry Ridge are making late bids for upsets.
But Ben Boarman, a small business owner in Owensboro, must overcome a strong Democratic presence in Daviess County to defeat Glenn. And Adams' opponent, Steve Wood, has tried to paint Adams as ineffective with constituent services, which Democrats say won't fly in that district.
Republicans haven't put much pressure on the Democrats, managing just eight challengers against the majority party's incumbents.
"There might be some shifts here or there, but I really don't see a lot of wholesale movement in numbers," Robertson said. "I think it's possible we could go up a seat or two and it's possible they could go up a seat or two."
Overall, there are fewer opportunities for either party to pick up seats this fall than any other election in 20 years. Just 29 of the 100 House seats are contested. Combined with the 11 state Senate seats that have competitive races, the General Assembly features only 40 races this year — the lowest total since it had 36 contests in 1988.
And the clear hotbed of competitive races, especially in the House, is Western Ken tucky.
Jonathan Hurst, the House Democratic caucus director, said Democrats have nearly exhausted their opportunities to pick up seats in the urban areas of Lexington and Louisville, as well as the heavily Democratic districts in Eastern Kentucky.
"In 2008, our battlefield is Western Kentucky. That's always tough," he said on a conference call with reporters. "In order for us to expand our majority, we have to move into" areas that have been Republican-performing in recent elections.
Democrats' best chances to pick up Republican-held seats come in a couple of open seats and with some strong challenges to a few incumbents, who have traditionally had tough re-elections:
■ The 16th District, which covers Logan and Todd counties, has been represented by Republican Rep. Sheldon Baugh since 1995, even though Democrats far outnumber GOP voters. With Baugh retiring, Democrat Martha Jane King has been running an aggressive grass-roots campaign for the seat, while Tim Thompson is trying to keep it in the Republican column.
■ In the 1st District, the seat farthest west that runs along the Mississippi River, two-term Republican Rep. Steve Rudy of West Paducah is having to fend off Democrat Mike Lawrence, who is the McCracken Circuit Court clerk. Lawrence, with the help of the Democratic House caucus, has out-raised Rudy $56,837 to $36,617 in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
■ The most contested Eastern Kentucky House seat is the 100th District in Boyd County, which is being vacated by retiring Republican Rep. John Vincent. Democrat Kevin Sinnette and Republican Michael R. Stewart are battling to replace Vincent.
■ And for the third election in a row, Republican Rep. Mike Harmon of Junction City is in a tough fight against Danville Democrat David Sparrow, a former dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. Sparrow fell 63 votes short of beating Harmon in 2006, but has out-raised him $34,667 to $10,736 this time.
Democrats also recruited former state Rep. Mike Weaver out of retirement to challenge Republican freshman Rep. Tim Moore of Elizabethtown in the 26th District that covers Hardin County, a tough area for Democrats.
In the Lexington area, Democrats must defend two seats: Rep. Bob Damron of Nicholasville races against Moore's brother, Chris Moore. And Kelly Flood, a political activist and former minister, is seeking to replace Democratic Rep. Kathy Stein, who is running for Senate. Flood faces Kimberly Ward, a Republican and a dental assistant.
In addition, after the tragic death of Democratic Rep. Larry Belcher of Shepherdsville several weeks ago, his widow, Linda Belcher, has stepped in to run as the Democratic candidate against Republican challenger Trina Summers.
But Hurst said Linda Belcher will have to make up some ground in votes because her husband's death came after some absentee ballots already had been cast. Any absentee ballots in that Bullitt County legislative district in which people voted for Larry Belcher or the straight Democratic ticket won't count, but votes for Trina Summers will, Hurst said.