As upset teachers across Kentucky Tuesday tried to flex their political muscle, Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda narrowly defeated House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell of Garrard County in one of the most-watched races for the state House, according to unofficial results.
Brenda tried in the Republican primary election for the 71st House District seat to capitalize on teacher anger against legislators who backed a controversial pension bill in this year's law-making session. It was Brenda's first bid for public office.
Shell, a farmer who has occupied the seat since 2012 and had the backing of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell as a potential rising star in the GOP, played a prominent role in handling the pension bill in the legislature.
The measure sparked a backlash of frustration by thousands of teachers who held protests at the Capitol.
An ebullient Brenda said Tuesday night that Shell called him about 8:10 to congratulate him. "He was very gracious," said Brenda.
Brenda said he had to thank God fiirst and then all his supporters. He said he not only got help from teachers but from state workers who were upset with the legislators and Gov. Matt Bevin "for what they did on the pension bill."
Shell, who was pondering a bid for House speaker next year, could not be immediately reached for comment.
According to the Associated Press, at least 40 current and former educators filed to run for seats this year in the Kentucky legislature. Sixteen of them had Democratic or Republican primary elections on Tuesday, including four against Republican incumbents.
Brenda, 43, was not a member of the Kentucky Education Association, which tends to support Democrats, because he has had issues with candidates backed by the National Education Association. But he attracted support from teachers in the district made up of Garrard, Rockcastle and part of Madison counties.
Shell, 30, claimed Brenda supporters were using scare tactics with teachers to oppose him. He said lawmakers did no harm to current teachers in voting to put new teachers in a hybrid pension plan similar to a 401(k) plan, fully funding the teachers' retirement system for the next two years and raising basic school funding to an all-time high of more than $4,000 per student.
Amy Floyd, a Lancaster resident who teaches special education, said there's no question the pension changes were an issue in the race. "I know a lot of the teachers are upset with Shell," she said.
John East, a Lancaster resident who farms and works at a factory, said he voted for Shell. He said he did not know a lot about the pension issue and that it was not a significant factor in how he voted.
Tommy Robison and his wife Karla Robison, a retired special education teacher, said they didn't like the process used to get the pension changes through, but both voted for Schell, in part because they know him and didn't know Brenda.
Tommy Robison said its appears Shell got used by other lawmakers in the pension debate. "He's a good guy. I'll give him one more chance," he said.
Thirty-five of the state House's 100 districts had contested primary elections Tuesday. Twenty House members — 11 Democrats and nine Republicans — did not seek re-election this year.
Besides Shell, three other incumbents went down to defeat Tuesday.
Republican C. Wesley Morgan, a liquor store operator from Richmond serving in his first term, got beat in the 81st House District GOP primary by Deanna L. Frazier of Richmond.
Morgan said he got no support from Kentucky's Republican leaders and was thinking about leaving the party. "They thought I was disruptive because I spoke out against Jeff Hoover." Hoover stepped down as House majority leader after it was revealed that he had settled a case involving alleged sexual harassment.
The other two losing House incumbents were Democrat Dennis Horlander of Louisville and Republican Tim Couch of Hyden.
In Fayette County's 88th House District, three Republicans and three Democrats ran to become the successor to Republican Robert Benvenuti III, an attorney who has represented the district since 2013. The winners who will square off in November's general election are Republican Bill Farmer, who formerly represented the district, and Democrat Cherlynn Stevenson, who is an event organizer for non-profits.