Politics & Government

Democrats increase their state House majority in special elections

Democrats won three of four House seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s special election, increasing their majority status in the House chamber by one for the rest of the 2016 General Assembly, including the all-important process of writing the next state budget.

The House will have 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans through the fall elections. It is the final state legislative chamber in the South to remain in Democratic control, and it is the last bastion of Democratic Party power in Kentucky, which otherwise has been trending Republican in state and federal elections.

Democrats won elections in Western Kentucky’s 8th District (Jeffrey R. Taylor of Hopkinsville), Central Kentucky’s 62nd District (Chuck Tackett of Georgetown) and northeastern Kentucky’s 98th District (Lew Nicholls of Greenup). The sole Republican won race in Central Kentucky’s 54th District (Daniel B. Elliott of Danville).

Two of the House seats were held previously by Republicans who won election to statewide office in November. The two others were held by Democrats who resigned to accept state posts from Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.

Tackett, a farmer, won the night’s most exciting race by picking up a seat for the Democrats that had been held by Republican Ryan Quarles, who was elected state agriculture commissioner last November. A Republican group, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, ran radio and television ads attacking Tackett as “a government insider” because he once served on Scott County Fiscal Court.

“I stayed myself,” Tackett said Tuesday night after he was declared the winner. “I did not try to be somebody I was not. And I stayed positive. I don’t see any point in going negative.”

Tackett said he was not ready to take a position on the state budget, where Bevin wants deep cuts to higher education and other services to find money for the ailing state pension systems. But Tackett’s time on the campaign trail introduced him to Central Kentuckians who need help, including “one young lady with $28,000 in college debt,” he said.

Taylor, the only black candidate in Tuesday’s elections, won with support from Democratic President Barack Obama, who made automated calls to voters in the district on Taylor’s behalf.

In recent weeks, Bevin campaigned and helped raise money for the Republican candidates in Tuesday’s special elections, saying he needed a Republican legislature to help him carry out his agenda, including $650 million in spending cuts. Republicans have firm control of the state Senate.

Kentucky Democratic Party chairwoman Sannie Overly, a state representative from Paris, said the Democratic victories Tuesday were “a repudiation of Gov. Bevin’s efforts to dismantle public education and health care.

“Trying to dismantle Kynect, which has helped more than half a million Kentuckians obtain health insurance, is a perfect example of the bad decisions Bevin is making that will hurt the people of the commonwealth,” Overly said. “These Democrats won because they are all good leaders — and they will serve Kentucky well. Tonight is not just a victory for them, but it is a victory for every Kentuckian.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Democrats won because they stood up “for education, health care, for protecting senior citizens.”

He added: “These elections tonight clearly show the House Democratic agenda, especially protecting public education and making kids work-ready for the 21st century, is accepted by voters in Kentucky in the east, in the west and Central Kentucky.”

Bevin, meanwhile, said in a statement that he was “delighted” Republicans “are another step closer to a new majority.”

“Tomorrow, there will be one more conservative vote in the House than we had in November,” Bevin said. “We look forward to carrying our conservative message into the fall elections. With 91 Republicans on the ballot this fall, and with either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton on the ballot as well, we like our odds in November.”

Mac Brown, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he remained confident that the GOP would take control of the House and “turn Kentucky in a new direction in November,” when all 100 House seats are up for grabs. Democrats have controlled the chamber since 1921.

Don Dugi, a political science professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, said he was not surprised that Democrats won three of the four special House elections.

“That’s what cutting the budget 9 percent will do,” said Dugi, referring to Bevin’s proposed cuts.

Dugi said he also thought that a video Bevin posted Monday on Facebook backfired. In the video, which had nearly 800,000 views on Facebook, Bevin stood in the empty House chamber Monday morning and urged House Democrats to get to work on the state budget.

“It was too cute,” Dugi said. “Most people realized that legislators do most of their work in committee rooms across from the Capitol and the House was not in session at that time.”

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, acknowledged he was “a little disappointed” with Tuesday’s results, noting that Democrats won the three districts with heavier Democratic voter registration and the Republican win was in the district with more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Hoover said Obama “definitely was a factor in the Western Kentucky race.”

“It will be interesting to see if Democrats will embrace the president in November’s elections,” Hoover said.

All three Republicans who lost Tuesday are committed to running in November’s general election for a two-year term. Tuesday’s winners will serve throughout this year.

Hoover also said he did not think Bevin’s proposed budget cuts were a factor in Tuesday’s elections.

“Most people were saying there need to be budget cuts, with the possible exception of education,” he said.

Political consultant Danny Briscoe of Louisville said the Democratic victories will “force the governor to deal with the House, especially on the budget. If he doesn’t, there may not be a budget from this legislative session.”

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

Election results

8th House District

Jeffrey R. Taylor, D, 3,286 59%

Walker Hood Thomas, R, 2,261 41%

54th House District

Daniel B. Elliott, R, 4,275 58%

Bill Noelker, D, 3,040 42%

62nd House District

Chuck Tackett, D, 3,463 52%

Phillip Pratt, R, 3,210 48%

98th House District

Lew Nicholls, D, 4,737 57%

Tony D. Quillen, R, 3,515 43%