Politics

Four special elections in March could alter the political landscape of Kentucky state government, furthering the Republican Party’s lunge for control of the state House.

The elections on March 8 will be for four state House seats in districts surrounding Hopkinsville, South Shore, Danville and Georgetown. The seats were vacated by two Republicans and two Democrats.

As the General Assembly’s 2016 legislative session begins today, Democrats hold 50 seats and Republicans hold 46. Republicans, who have not controlled the state House since the 1920s, could evenly divide the 100-member House with victories in the special elections.

All 100 seats are up for reelection in November.

Momentum is on the GOP’s side. In November, Bevin became just the second Republican governor in more than 40 years. Republicans also won the state auditor and treasurer posts from Democratic hands.

Plus, along with Bevin’s strategic appointments of Democratic lawmakers, two other representatives switched their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in recent weeks.

But there’s no guarantee that Republicans will be able to cash in on the apparent conservative swell in Kentucky. Democrats still have a large majority of voters registered in the districts held by former Democratic representatives.

Two of the seats were vacated by Democratic representatives appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin to state government positions. The other two were vacated by Republican representatives who won elections for constitutional offices in November.

The district of former Rep. John Tilley, who Bevin appointed to be secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, has 16,289 registered Democrats compared with 8,083 Republicans.

Still, Democrats have a statewide edge in voter registration and lost most of the fall’s statewide elections.

Tilley’s native Christian County had one of the lowest voter participation rates in the general election, at 17.8 percent. The county went for Bevin.

Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the current political situation in the state House will probably favor Republicans by the time of the special elections.

“Those that are paying attention to this are probably Republicans, because they’re the ones who have the momentum on their side,” Clayton said. “They probably would be more motivated to get out and vote.”

Republicans have been securing political victories on Democratic turf in the other vacant districts as well.

Former Rep. Tanya Pullin’s district, which includes parts of Greenup and Boyd counties in northeastern Kentucky, has many more Democrats registered than Republicans: 18,309 to 11,261, respectively. Yet both Greenup and Boyd counties voted in favor of Bevin. Pullin was recently appointed to become an administrative law judge.

Democrats also have a major voter registration advantage — 18,255 Democrats to 13,104 Republicans — in the district of former Republican state Rep. Ryan Quarles, which includes parts of Fayette, Scott and Owen Counties. Quarles, now the agriculture commissioner, won his House seat in 2010, defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Charlie Hoff. He was reelected to the position twice more.

Meanwhile, newly minted state Auditor Mike Harmon’s district is a safe bet for Republicans. Harmon was first elected to his former seat in 2003. His district is solidly Republican and includes Boyle and Casey counties.

Just like the general election, a lot will ride on voter turnout, Clayton said. And he doesn’t expect turnout to be very good.

“Some people get sort of election-weary,” Clayton said. “That sort of plays into this whole general sense that ‘I’ve got better things to do.'”

It’s not simply a matter of a special election happening four months after a general election in which turnout was about 31 percent. Kentucky Republicans will also vote for the party’s presidential nominee in a caucus on March 5.

Bevin, who set the March 8 special election, said it would be “fantastic” if Republicans won the four special elections.

“I want conservative people. I want people in those seats that will represent the people of Kentucky. And I will do everything in my power to make sure that the people who I think embody the values that I was elected to represent are elected,” Bevin said, adding, “I do think they’ll be Republicans.”

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