Politics & Government

Challenger questions conservatism of Thayer in state Senate primary election

Ricky Hostetler is trying to squeeze to the political right of state Sen. Damon Thayer, one of the General Assembly's most vocal conservatives.

Hostetler is challenging Thayer in the May 22 Republican primary for the 17th Senate district, which represents Scott, Owen and Grant counties and part of Kenton County. The winner will face Democrat David Holcomb on Nov. 6. All three men live in Georgetown.

Hostetler says Thayer — who is seeking a fourth term — has become part of the Frankfort political establishment that drives up government spending while enjoying public pensions and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Hostetler pledges to limit himself to two terms, which he said he would use to slash taxes and regulations, giving the private sector the freedom it needs to grow.

"Just take a look at the numbers. In the last 10 to 12 years, our state's debt has increased ten-fold to about $40 billion, if you count the state pension system liability," Hostetler, a 53-year-old electrical contractor, said in an interview. "Senator Thayer has been there most of that time. I think he has to accept some of the responsibility."

Thayer, 44, responds by calling Hostetler "a little desperate." Thayer touts his conservative support from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the National Rifle Association, the pro-business Kentucky Club for Growth (which ranks him best among 38 state senators) and the anti-abortion Kentucky Right to Life.

Thayer also had $99,996 in campaign funds banked on April 20, about 10 times what Hostetler had. An internal poll the Thayer campaign conducted in March showed the incumbent leading Hostetler by a 44-point margin among the district's likely Republican primary voters, Thayer said.

"My voting record is very much in line with the conservative ideals of my district," Thayer said. "The people of my district know me. They know that I'm a fighter for conservative values, and I feel very strong that Republican voters in the primary will get that message."

Thayer just finished a bruising 2012 legislative session.

As chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, Thayer helped draw new political districts for state lawmakers that proved controversial. Among other things, it would have ejected state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, from the legislature. The Kentucky Supreme Court declared the plan unconstitutional and killed it.

Then Thayer crossed party lines to team with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear on a proposed constitutional amendment that could have legalized slot machines at some horse racetracks. Equine blogger Ray Paulick called it "Damon Thayer's Valentine" for the horse industry. But the bill died in a Senate floor vote under withering opposition from Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

Thayer and Williams, once friends and allies, disagreed on expanded gambling. By April, they were loudly arguing in a Capitol Annex hallway. Thayer was upset that the Senate failed to act on the state road budget during the regular session, forcing a $60,000-a-day special session that embarrassed him and other incumbents seeking re-election. Williams, as Senate president, caught flak for the special session.

Thayer said he doesn't know if the Senate Republican caucus will keep Williams in his leadership post.

"He's the Senate president through the end of this year," Thayer said. "It was not a good session for our working relationship, that is indisputable. But that's a decision the caucus is going to have to make sometime between now and the end of the year. The caucus is going to have a very difficult decision to make."

After a pause, he added: "This session was the absolute worst session I've ever been a part of, and there's a level of dysfunction that is very frustrating to members of the Senate and the public at large."

Thayer said he's proud of lesser-known measures he has sponsored. Among those are transparency bills to require online disclosure of state government spending and to establish oversight of the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties. Thayer also is a critic of the growing unfunded liability of the state pension system. He has called for an end to guaranteed pensions for new state and local government employees.

In 2009, Thayer likes to point out, he split from Senate Republican leaders and opposed a tax increase Beshear sought on tobacco and alcohol. It passed, anyway.

Hostetler, vice chairman of the Scott County Republican Party, does not criticize most of Thayer's individual stances, with one notable exception: He says slot machines are "unbiblical and unmoral," and he opposes expanded gambling. Further, he says Thayer, a horse industry consultant, should not sponsor measures that could financially benefit his clients.

Thayer was subjected to similar conflict-of-interest accusations from gambling opponents during the last legislative session. After some initial resistance, he released a list of his consulting clients — including two Kentucky horse farms — and said none of them directly would benefit from slot machines at racetracks.