Politics & Government

As Democrats age, young Republicans make gains in Kentucky House

Jonathan Shell
Jonathan Shell

FRANKFORT — When Republican Jonathan Shell knocked on Garrard and Madison County doors this summer and fall, voters apparently liked what they saw.

The 24-year-old farmer shocked many in the 36th House District when he beat an establishment candidate in the Republican primary and easily bested a Democratic opponent for the open House seat on Nov. 6.

"What I kept hearing on the campaign trail is that we needed new ideas in Frankfort," Shell said recently. "They wanted someone who is fresh and new."

Shell will be the youngest person in the legislature when the General Assembly returns in January. He joins a growing crop of young Republicans elected to the 100-member House in recent years, helping the GOP get close to taking control of the House for the first time since 1921.

There are now four House Republicans who are 30 or younger. Conversely, there is only one Democrat in the House younger than 40 — Rep. Will Coursey, 34, of Symsonia. The average age of House Democrats is 55. The average age of House Republicans is 51.

Age might have been a factor as Republicans gained four seats in the House on Nov. 6. The GOP won open seats in four districts where long-time Democratic incumbents retired. Republicans now have 45 seats in the House, compared to 55 for Democrats.

In addition to Shell, House Republicans who are 30 or younger are Rep. Michael Meredith, 27, of Brownsville; Rep. Ryan Quarles, 29, of Georgetown; and Rep. Sara Beth Gregory, 30, of Monticello. Gregory is now running for an open state Senate seat.

"There is an entire generation of people that are coming into the political process, and an overwhelming majority are choosing to be Republican," said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky. "We think it's important to put younger candidates in front of voters. They have a lot of drive and energy."

Although Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Kentucky — 55 percent of voters to 38 percent — the Republican ranks are growing faster. Since the 2008 general election, the number of Kentucky Republicans is up 9.25 percent, or 97,460. The Democratic Party has grown by 0.23 percent, or 3,760, according to figures from the Kentucky secretary of state's office.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the retirement of so many Democrats this election cycle gave Republicans an opportunity they have not had in many years.

Stumbo said Democrats are mindful that many House Democrats are getting older and facing retirement. As a party, they have worked hard to attract young, fresh faces, he said.

Democrats have started the only formal candidate recruitment effort in Kentucky. Emerge Kentucky, which began in 2009, recruits and trains women of any age to run for all levels of public office.

State Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, is one of Emerge Kentucky's first graduates. Smart, 64, enrolled in the program while running for the House in 2010.

"There were so many young women who were part of the program that were running for local offices such as school board. They may run for a state-level office sometime down the road," Smart said.

Jennifer Moore started Emerge Kentucky — part of a national program to recruit more Democratic women — after stepping down as Kentucky Democratic Party chairwoman in 2009.

With so many graduates coming out of Emerge Kentucky, the party will have many potential candidates in coming years, Moore said.

Two Emerge Kentucky graduates ran unsuccessfully for the House on Nov. 6, but nine others ran for other offices and won, Moore said.

"I'm actually very optimistic," she said.

Democrats have a deep bench of young elected officials around the state, Moore and Stumbo said. For example, three Democratic constitutional officers are younger than 45: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen. None of the three served in the legislature before being elected to statewide office.

The only Republican in a statewide office is Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. Before being elected to the position in 2011, Comer, 40, served in the House. He was 27 when first elected to the House in 2000.

One difficulty in recruiting younger candidates for both political parties is legislative pay. Some city councils and county fiscal courts pay higher salaries than Kentucky's part-time legislature, and elected city and county officials don't have to spend several months of the year away from their jobs, families or homes.

A typical rank-and-file member of the legislature makes about $23,000 a year plus travel expenses. The vast majority of lawmakers are self-employed — lawyers, real estate agents or farmers — or retired.

Stumbo said he wants a "citizen legislature" but is concerned that the outdated way lawmakers are paid will soon mean that only the wealthy or retired can afford to serve.

Lawmakers are paid $188 a day. They also receive a travel stipend, but the amount is the same no matter where a lawmaker lives.

Still, there is no political will to change the way the legislature is paid, he said.

Shell said he was not sure whether he wants to seek another office later in life. But he hopes other younger candidates will step forward to help shape Kentucky's future.

"I don't think Kentucky can wait for real leadership," he said.