Politics

The dirt on the grave of Democrat Jack Conway’s campaign is still fresh, but Republicans already have their sights set on the state House.

Republicans captured the Kentucky governor’s mansion for only the second time in more than four decades, and they have control of the state Senate. But Democrats still have an eight-person majority in the House.

“On the horizon, what should really be concerning for Democrats is their ability to hold onto the state House of Representatives in 2016,” said Kentucky Republican Party Chair Steve Robertson.

He called Republicans’ capture of the governor’s mansion and positions of state auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner a “rout.”

“And I think for the Republican Party, this is a sign of things to come,” Robertson said.

The eight-person Democratic majority in the state House means GOP initiatives such as an anti-union right-to-work law and charter school enabling legislation still have an impenetrable roadblock if Democrats unanimously oppose the policies.

Democrats have controlled the Kentucky House since 1922. They had control of the state Senate until the mid-1990s. And of course, until Tuesday, Democrats served as governor of Kentucky for all but eight of the last 65 years.

But now with a solidly Republican Senate and Republican governor-elect Matt Bevin, Robertson says times are changing.

“I think what we’re seeing is we’re finally seeing the manifestation of eight years of party registration where Democrats have been outpaced ten-to-one,” Robertson said.

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At the Democratic election night party, House Speaker Greg Stumbo was concerned but upbeat about the chances of keeping a blue majority in the House.

“I like my team, I like my chances,” he said. “We played in the toughest conference that we could play in — if you want to equate it to a football team — last year, and we won and we were the only place in the nation that we won.”

Last year, Republicans mounted an organized effort to flip the House in their favor. At the same time, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell ran a reelection campaign in Kentucky, dominating Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.

That year produced major Republican victories across the nation — they gained control in the U.S. Senate and widened their lead in the U.S. House. But in Kentucky, Democrats managed to hold onto their majority.

Stumbo said now, Kentucky Democrats need to return to a message of improving education and growing the middle class — with a Christian tinge.

“Don’t be afraid to go to church, don’t be afraid to let people know that you’re a Democrat, don’t let them believe that you can’t be Christian and be a Democrat,” Stumbo said.

Some have suggested that Kentucky’s social conservatives flocked to the Republican Party in response to the national legalization of same-sex marriage this summer.

Kentucky was one of several states to take that battle to the Supreme Court, but Democratic candidate Jack Conway famously refused to defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban in his capacity as attorney general.

Another factor could be the apparently successful Bevin campaign tactic of tying Conway to President Barack Obama. Obama only has a 35 percent approval rating in Kentucky.

“What happened is the Democrat Party is asleep,” said Rowan County Judge Executive Doc Blevins, a former Democratic state senator. “They’ve been sitting on their butts, staying home and not voting.”

Blevins saod people who use and benefit from programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and public education have taken them for granted.

“All of those things, they don’t know where they came from I guess, they forgot who pushes for those programs,” Blevins said.

Democrats will continue to have the House majority through Governor-Elect Matt Bevin’s first legislative session, which begins in January. 

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.