Politics & Government

Kentucky lawmaker’s party switch boosts GOP ranks in House

State Rep. Denver Butler
State Rep. Denver Butler Legislative Research Commission

State Rep. Denver Butler, a longtime Democrat from Louisville, filed Thursday to seek re-election as a Republican — a move designed to help the GOP win control of the Kentucky House next year for the first time in about 90 years.

Butler, a retired homicide police sergeant who has been in the state House since 2013, said in an email that he made the party switch “after a great deal of thought, reflection and prayer.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Butler’s announcement, noting that Butler’s father had also been a Democratic state lawmaker.

“In short, I find it hard to believe that he made this decision, but we will field a strong candidate in this district, which has been reliably Democratic,” Stumbo said. “Our caucus remains strong.”

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said in an email that he welcomes Butler into the House GOP caucus.

Hoover said Butler informed him Thursday morning that he had officially switched his registration to Republican late yesterday afternoon, and would be seeking re-election as a Republican.

“Representative Butler and I have had a very good relationship over the years and have developed a strong friendship,” Hoover said. “His extensive background in law enforcement is only matched by his unwavering integrity and desire for more transparency in state government. He is a welcome addition to the House Republican ranks which now stands at 47 members.”

Accountability and transparency are requirements to move Kentucky forward. It has been my experience over the past few years both are deficient within the Democrat Party. This, along with a lack of relevant leadership and a plan to move the commonwealth forward, has led me to the decision I make today.

State Rep. Denver Butler

With the election this month of Republican Matt Bevin and several other GOP constitutional officers, Republicans have focused on taking over the state House next year. That would give the GOP control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. The state Senate went Republican in 2000, thanks in part to the party switches of a few members.

All 100 House seats will be up for election next year. Democrats had held a 54-46 advantage in the chamber. That will drop to 53-47 with Butler’s party switch.

Two House Republicans will be leaving soon. Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville will become state auditor in January and Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown will become the state agriculture commissioner. Special elections will be held to fill those two seats.

Stumbo said shortly after the Nov. 3 elections that he did not expect any House Democrat to leave the party.

According to records in the secretary of state’s office, Butler filed Nov. 4 for re-election as a Democrat from Jefferson County’s 38th House District. But at 8:58 a.m. Thursday he refiled as a Republican.

Candidates are allowed to refile as many times as they like until the 4 p.m. filing deadline on Jan. 26.

In the email announcing his party switch, Butler said as a Democrat he was “met with resistance and disregard from leaders of the Democrat Party” when he sought an independent audit of funds for police and firefighters that manage more than $100 million a year for training and incentive pay.

“I look forward to working with Minority Leader Hoover to facilitate a meeting with Auditor-Elect Harmon concerning the requested audit,” Butler said.

He added: “Accountability and transparency are requirements to move Kentucky forward. It has been my experience over the past few years both are deficient within the Democrat Party. This, along with a lack of relevant leadership and a plan to move the commonwealth forward, has led me to the decision I make today.”

Stumbo said he has not spoken with Butler about a potential audit, but “would support the audit if there is any evidence of misappropriation of funds involving tax dollars.”

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville, who has said a GOP takeover of the state House is a top priority for him, said he is confident Butler will serve his district well as a Republican.

In a statement, the Jefferson County Republican Party said it is “excited and energized” with Butler’s decision.

The group said Butler’s switch “continues the momentum of this year's elections and adds fuel to the statewide effort to bring about a new majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century.”

Republican Gov.-elect Bevin did not respond to a request for a comment.

The 38th District, which Butler represents, has 15,660 registered Democrat and 8,031 Republicans.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he heard of Butler’s switch Thursday morning.

“I’m hoping to be able to talk to him and find out more of what’s going on,” Beshear said. “Certainly I would love for him to run as a Democrat. Denny has served in the legislature as a Democrat and I think his principles and ideas fit more with our party than the other side.”

Butler’s brother, Matt Butler, had filed Nov. 4 to run as a Democrat in the 46th House District but he withdrew Thursday afternoon as a candidate.

Matt Butler did not return phone calls seeking comment.

State Rep. Larry Clark, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election from the 46th District, said he enjoyed working in the House with Butler and his late father, also named Denver Butler.

“I’m very disappointed with the son,” Clark said.

Clark said he did not know if Butler switched parties because he was upset that Clark endorsed Alan Gentry as his replacement in the House instead of Matt Butler.