With all seats in the state House of Representatives and half the state Senate up for re-election, Kentucky Democrats are hoping to ride a wave of opposition to Gov. Matt Bevin and the unpopular pension bill that passed this year into Frankfort.
But flipping control of either state legislative chamber will be a longshot on Election Day in a state that has become increasingly Republican in recent years and where the GOP enjoy supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
Still, Democrats stand to pick up a few seats on Nov. 6, especially in suburban areas near Louisville where President Donald Trump is unpopular and pockets of Eastern Kentucky where there’s opposition to Bevin’s pension policies and Democratic registration is still deep.
Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said that Democrats’ best hope might be chipping away at GOP supermajorities, which currently stand at 62 out of 100 seats in the House, and 27 out of 38 seats in the Senate.
“This is still going to be a Republican state for the short-term. The odds are Republicans are probably going to lose some seats in the House this time around but they’re still going to hold the majority and probably be well-positioned in 2020 to add to them,” Lasley said.
“The pension issue complicates it more than anything else, but probably does not change the reality.”
Democrats still represent a plurality of registered voters in Kentucky — 49.6 percent compared to Republicans’ 41.7 percent. But after 2016 elections, Republicans have control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in state history.
With then-candidate Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans gained 17 seats in state House elections — ousting Democrats from the majority for the first time since 1921.
But Republicans’ high-water mark could be at risk after they rammed through changes to state workers’ pension benefits amid massive protests from teachers and other public employees earlier this year.
Lasley said Bevin’s support of the pension bill and series of insulting remarks directed at teachers haven’t helped Republicans’ prospects.
“I do think that it does have an adverse effect on Republican state legislators. Yeah, there’s a price to be paid,” Lasley said.
According to a recent poll from Morning Consult, Bevin’s approval rating has dwindled to about 30 percent.
Republican political strategist Scott Jennings said the pension issue is especially salient in rural counties where public school systems are among the largest employers.
“When you have so many people working at something, they have family, they have cousins, they have a big network of people that could be affected by that vote,” Jennings said during a recent taping of WFPL’s “On The Record.”
But Jennings said the pension issue will cut both ways — as Democrats criticize Republicans who voted for pension changes and Republicans criticize incumbent Democrats who were in office while the pension systems went underfunded.
“I think you might see that the pension issue dragged down people in both parties, not just one,” Jennings said.
Here are some of the competitive races voters will be weighing in on across the state on Election Day.
Seats Currently Held By Republicans:
House District 48—Jefferson County (part), Oldham (part)
One-term incumbent GOP Rep. Ken Fleming is facing a rematch against Democrat Maria Sorolis, an attorney who also teaches middle school.
Fleming beat Sorolis in 2016 with 57 percent of the vote. The district has a slight Republican voter registration advantage with 19,473 voters compared to 18,787 registered Democrats.
House District 32—Jefferson County (part)
Two-term incumbent GOP Rep. Phil Moffett is being challenged by Democrat Tina Bojanowski, a special education teacher and gymnastics coach. She says she opposes pension changes passed out of the legislature and wants to repeal Kentucky’s charter schools law.
The district has a Democratic voter registration advantage with 17,622 compared to 15,717 registered Republicans.
House District 62—Fayette (part), Owen, Scott (part)
First-term incumbent GOP Rep. Philip Pratt is facing a challenge from Jenny Urie, a social studies teacher at Owen County High School.
Pratt owns a landscaping business in Georgetown. Urie says she was angered by the pension overhaul and inflammatory comments about teachers made by Gov. Bevin.
In early 2016, Pratt lost a special election to represent the district by about 200 votes. With Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, he turned around to win the district during the general election by more than 3,000 votes.
Democrats have a registration advantage with 18,184 voters compared to Republicans’ 15,962.
House District 33—Jefferson County (part), Oldham (part)
One-term incumbent GOP Rep. Jason Nemes is facing a rematch from Democratic attorney Rob Walker. Nemes beat Walker in 2016 with 55 percent of the vote.
Republicans have a slight voter registration advantage in the district with 18,632 registered voters compared to 17,807 registered Democrats.
House District 81—Madison (part)
Democratic Richmond City Commissioner and attorney Morgan Eaves is facing off against Republican Deanna Frazier, an audiologist who defeated one-term incumbent Rep. Wesley Morgan during the primary election.
In 2016, outgoing Rep. Morgan narrowly defeated the previous Rep. Rita Smart, one of many Democrats to fall amid Republicans’ 2016 statehouse surge.
Democrats have a significant registration advantage with 17,249 voters compared to Republicans’ 13,761.
House District 84—Harlan (part), Perry
First-term incumbent GOP Rep. Chris Fugate is facing retired teacher Tom Pope, a Democrat. Fugate is a retired Kentucky State Police officer and Pope currently serves as an associate dean of Southeast Community and Technical College.
Democrats have a major registration advantage in the district with 21,370 registered compared to 9,746 Republicans. However, Fugate won his race in 2016 with over 63 percent of the vote against incumbent Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele.
House District 91— Breathitt, Estill, Lee, Madison (part), Owsley
Incumbent GOP Rep. Toby Herald is facing a rematch against Cluster Howard, who previously represented the district from 2015-16 after defeating Herald in the 2014 election.
Herald is the owner of masonry and cash advance businesses in Beattyville and Howard is a professor in the Hazard Community and Technical College system.
The district has a Democratic registration advantage with 17,500 voters compared to 13,324 Republicans.
House District 94—Floyd, Pike (part)
One-term incumbent GOP Rep. Larry Brown is being challenged by attorney Ashley Tackett, a Democrat.
Brown defeated former Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo in 2016, but the district’s voter registration profile heavily favors Democrats with 26,006 registered voters compared to 5,735 Republicans.
Seats Currently Held By Democrats:
House District 6—Lyon, Marshall, McCracken (part)
With incumbent Democrat Will Coursey not seeking re-election, Democrat Linda Story Edwards, a retired teacher, is running against Republican Chris Freeland, who owns newspapers and radio stations in the area.
The western Kentucky district includes Marshall County High School, where two sophomores were killed during a mass shooting earlier this year.
The district has been a Democratic bastion for years but is trending Republican. Democrats still have a registration advantage with 20,492 voters to 11,642 Republicans.
House District 49—Bullitt (part)
Incumbent Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher is facing Republican Thomas Huff. Belcher is a retired teacher who served in the House from 2008 to 2012 and 2014-2016. She was ousted by former GOP Rep. Dan Johnson in 2016, but won the seat back this year in a special election after Johnson died by suicide.
Huff is a partner at a used car dealership in Shepherdsville. According to his website, he supports gun rights and the legislature’s passage of a new abortion restriction, which has been temporarily blocked by a federal court.
Republicans have a slight registration advantage with 14,546 compared to 14,352 Democrats.
House District 87—Bell, Harlan (part)
With Democratic Rep. Rick Nelson not seeking re-election, Republican Adam Bowling is facing off against Democrat Dustin Allen.
Bowling owns pharmacies and several other businesses. Allen is a science teacher at North Laurel High School.
Democrats have a slight registration advantage but the district has been trending Republican in recent elections. There are 14,614 registered Democrats in the area compared to 14,294 Republicans.
House District 3—McCracken (part)
Republican Randy Bridges and Democrat Martha Emmons are running to replace Democratic Rep. Gerald Watkins, who is not seeking re-election.
Emmons is a businesswoman who owns a bicycle and fitness shop, and Bridges is a real estate agent.
Democrats have a significant registration advantage in the district with 19,196 voters compared to 11,273 Republicans.
Competitive Senate Races
Senate District 32—Warren
Incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Wilson is being challenged by Democrat Jeannie Smith, a seventh grade social studies teacher.
Wilson was first elected in 2011 and served as the chair of the Senate Education Committee until earlier this year. He helped shepherd recent education reform legislation to passage and is now the Senate Majority Whip. Smith is a political newcomer and has run a campaign opposing the pension bill, education cuts and health care changes.
Republicans have a registration advantage in the district with 52,494 voters compared to Democrats’ 41,478.
Senate District 28—Clark, Fayette (part), Montgomery
One-term incumbent Sen. Ralph Alvarado is facing a challenge from Democrat Denise Gray, a special education teacher.
Alvarado is a physician and first Hispanic elected to the Kentucky legislature. Last year he helped shepherd Kentucky’s medical review panel policy into law. He was tapped to speak at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Gray opposes many of the initiatives Republicans have passed since taking control of the legislature like right-to-work, repealing the prevailing wage on public works projects, the pension bill and changes to the tax code.
Democrats have a registration advantage in the district with 47,170 voters compared to 31,430 Republicans.
Senate District 26— Jefferson (part) Oldham
Six-term incumbent GOP Sen. Ernie Harris is facing a challenge from Democrat Karen Berg, a radiologist.
Despite his long tenure and a Republican voter registration advantage in the district, Harris is facing a significant challenge from Berg. Both candidates’ campaigns have spent around $100,000 during the election.
Harris is chair of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee, which helps determine priorities for the state’s network of highways and bridges. He has advocated for raising the fuel tax to help shore up the state’s road fund.
Berg says she wants to generating revenue for the state by expanding gaming and legalizing marijuana. She also opposes Gov. Bevin’s Medicaid changes.
Republicans have a registration advantage with 52,494 voters compared to Democrats’ 41,478.