The 2014 U.S. Senate race for the seat now held by Republican Mitch McConnell may be the most important in the nation, but it might be the second-most important election inside the state.
Kentucky’s House of Representatives is the only state legislative chamber in the South that isn’t controlled by a Republican majority, but it may not stay that way after 2014. Republicans have set their sights on taking over the House, where Democrats now hold a 54-45 majority with one vacancy.
“We’re very optimistic,” said House Republican Whip John “Bam” Carney of Campbellsville. “People aren’t happy with what the Democratic majority has done for the last 90 years and that gives us a pretty good chance.”
If Republicans take over the House to go with their majority in the state Senate, it’ll be almost impossible for Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to stop such hot-button legislation as right-to-work, charter schools and stricter abortion regulations, which could transform the state even further politically.
The GOP is also eager to exploit allegations of sexual harassment by former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, who resigned in September and whose vacated seat will be filled by the winner of a special election on Dec. 10.
And there appear to be cracks in the Democratic caucus’ unity. Some House Democrats have flirted with the idea of not seeking re-election while one admits he briefly considered a party switch.
“Well, yes, I did talk to some (local) Republicans about switching,” said Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow. “I thought about it, but that’s something I’m not going to do.”
There have been whispers since the 2012 elections that Republicans were courting some Democrats to switch parties and recently, the rumors centered on Bell, especially if Republicans were to win the December special election, narrowing their path to taking control in November 2014.
But Bell said the special election “had nothing to do with” his deliberations and no Republican in the state party or the state House approached him about switching. “I talked to two or three people around (Barren County),” Bell said, declining to name them.
Before Bell’s name cropped up, Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, was often mentioned as a possible defector.
Gooch laughed when asked about such rumors.
“It’s funny. I’ve heard that, too, but no one’s ever talked to me about (switching). I’m from a big Democratic district and I’m not going to change parties,” said the chairman of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Carney said his party is concentrating on recruiting strong candidates for 2014 and he knows of no efforts to convert Bell or any other Democratic incumbent.
Bell – who has opposed House leadership in a leadership election and on a couple of key bills – said he was motivated by frustration that politics and jockeying for influence in Frankfort often seemed to stand in the way of representing his constituents. But Bell said this week he has picked up his filing papers and will file for re-election as a Democrat “probably the next time I’m in Frankfort.” He also said he’s made peace with some House leaders.
As of Tuesday, only nine of the 54 incumbent House Democrats had filed for re-election, but House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Majority Caucus Chair, Sannie Overly, D-Paris, said there won’t be a wave of retirements.
“At this point, I know of no one in our caucus who is planning to retire,” Stumbo said. He said any effort by Republicans to flip some House Democrats “are destined to fail. Simply put, the next year will be a bright one for House Democrats because we will have a strong slate of well-funded candidates.”
He said likely Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes will help Democratic House candidates while their Republican opponents will have to overcome “McConnell’s high negatives. I’m confident we will see a net gain in seats.”
Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, will give up his seat to run for county judge-executive in Jessamine County. Four other Democrats were lumped together with a colleague in new districts but none of them — Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Catlettsburg, Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, or Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville – have indicated they won’t run for re-election. Sinnette has already filed his papers to run.
House Democrats will gather in Frankfort on Dec. 12 to discuss the next state budget, and Overly said many will likely file for re-election then.
Overly and Carney are pleased with their recruitment of 2014 candidates to challenge the other party’s incumbents and both are optimistic about the special election between Republican Suzanne Miles of Daviess County and Democrat Kim Humphrey of Union County.
Even as Carney likes his party’s chances in November, Overly is also confident.
“I do feel good about holding onto the House majority,” Overly said.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com.
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