There are 65 contested races in the Kentucky House of Representatives this year, and the political stakes are high.
Republicans are once again angling to take control of the chamber, which happens to be the last legislative body controlled by Democrats in the South. Democrats control the House with a 53-47 margin.
Al Cross, a Courier-Journal columnist and director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said they have an uphill battle.
“The Democrats will have little money to put into these races,” Cross said. “The party is not in good financial shape, it doesn’t have a good way to raise money because it lacks power.”
Democrats have enjoyed governors’ ability to headline fundraisers that benefit the state party or local campaigns for 39 of the last 43 years. Now Bevin has the mantle.
Cross still said Democrats have an edge in the races because of “inertia”— the party has controlled the House since 1922, and Kentucky has historically voted Democratic in a majority of state-level races.
But times are changing. The state Senate had never been led by Republicans until Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville and former Sen. Bob Leeper of Paducah changed their party affiliations in 1999. And last November, Republicans trounced Democrats in elections to statewide offices, sending Republicans to the positions of governor, lieutenant governor, auditor, agriculture commissioner and treasurer.
Cross predicts Democrats will try to use Bevin as a foil by running against his cuts to state colleges and universities, as well as his promises to dismantle Kynect and the expanded Medicaid system.
“I think the Democrats believe he is unpopular and they can run against him, and that remains to be seen,” Cross said.
According to a Morning Consult poll conducted between January and May, Bevin had a 33 percent approval rating. Cross pointed out that the poll might be skewed because Bevin’s success cutting the state budget, in order to put more money into the pension systems, wasn’t realized until April.
Republicans predicted victory in House races during the 2014 general election and special elections for four seats this year, but Democrats prevailed in both events.
If the GOP’s efforts in the legislature are successful this year, they’ll be in command of the entire lawmaking process as legislation moves through the House, the Republican-dominated state Senate and to Bevin’s desk.
Notable attempts to unseat incumbent legislators include the 99th District, in which Republican Wendy Fletcher is challenging House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, a Democrat.
The district includes Rowan County, the home of county clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses after same-sex marriage was legalized. Davis was elected as a Democrat but switched her party to Republican, saying that Democratic state officials refused to help her.
In the 38th District, attorney McKenzie Cantrell is challenging incumbent Rep. Denny Butler, who switched his party affiliation to Republican after Bevin was elected. Party registrations in the district lean Democratic, and it voted in favor of President Barack Obama during the 2008 and 2012 elections.
There are eight races for vacant House districts in which the incumbent — four Democrats, four Republicans — decided not to seek re-election.
23rd District: Steve Riley, Republican vs. Danny Basil, Democrat (Democrat Johnny Bell, majority whip from Glasgow, retiring)
46th District: Eric Crump, Republican vs. Alan Gentry, Democrat Louisville (Democrat Larry Clark of Louisville retiring)
48th District: Ken Fleming, Republican vs. Maria Sorolis, Democrat (Republican Bob DeWeese of Louisville retiring)
50th District: Chad McCoy, Republican vs. James DeWeese, Democrat (Republican David Floyd of Bardstown retiring)
58th District: Rob Rothenburger, Republican vs. Cyndi Powell Skellie, Democrat (Republican Brad Montell of Shelbyville retiring)
64th District: Kimberly Poor Moser, Republican vs. Lucas Deaton, Democrat, Independence (Republican Tom Kerr of Taylor Mill retiring)
70th District: John VanMeter, Republican vs. John Sims, Democrat (Democrat Mike Denham of Maysville retiring)
94th District: Frank Justice, Republican vs. Angie Hatton, Democrat, (Democrat Leslie Combs of Pikeville retiring)