Politics

The outcome of four special elections in Kentucky today could change the political control of the state House of Representatives, the last legislative chamber in the South run by Democrats.

If Republicans win all four elections, they would tie the political makeup of the chamber, where Democrats hold 50 seats and Republicans 46. Democrats have held a majority in the House since 1921.

A Republican sweep would put the party within one vote of controlling both chambers and the governor’s mansion for the first time in state history.

“This would be a fundamental change in the way that Kentucky government operates,” said Al Cross, a Courier-Journal columnist and director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The elections take place in two districts (near Hopkinsville and South Shore) vacated by lawmakers who Gov. Matt Bevin appointed to new positions. Also at stake are two districts (around Danville and Georgetown) where representatives stepped down after being elected to statewide offices.

The winners of the special elections will start immediately and serve out the last 17 days of the legislative session.

If Republicans win all four contests, leadership of the body would be thrown into question, including which party would designate a Speaker of the House. Democrats maintain that Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, would serve the rest of his term, which ends at the start of next year’s legislative session.

Cross said in the event of a tie, Republicans would try to get a Democrat to vote with them on new rules to reorganize the House.

Democrats have the majority of registered voters in the Hopkinsville, South Shore and Georgetown districts.

But Republican strategist Scott Jennings said Kentucky’s Republican presidential caucus last weekend could be a boon for GOP contenders who campaigned during the voting. Republican candidate Philip Pratt appeared at the Georgetown caucus, and Republican Walker Wood Thomas campaigned at the caucus in Hopkinsville.

“It put those candidates directly in front of the folks who could turn out on Tuesday and make a difference,” Jennings said.

“These are small districts, turnout is usually pretty light in special elections,” he said. “And so if you just convince 100 or 200 that maybe hadn’t thought about it much — that can obviously have a huge percentage impact.”

Jennings said the real battle would be in November, when there are 91 contested elections for House seats.

“That’s going to have a lot bigger impact on who controls, ultimately, the state House than these four on one day,” Jennings said.

Bevin ushered in a new era of Republican leadership in Frankfort when he was elected in November, becoming only the second GOP governor here in 50 years. Republicans have never had control of the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers simultaneously; Democrats have several times.

Danny Briscoe, a Democratic strategist, said a change in the political control of the House would give Bevin more power to achieve his agenda.

“If Republicans get control of the House, they’ll pass the governor’s budget intact,” Briscoe said.

Bevin has proposed cutting state spending by $650 million over the next two years, with reductions to be issued nearly across the board.

Also on the line are several bills that Democrats haven’t been keen to pass on right-to-work, abortion and religious freedom.

Briscoe said beyond the special election, the makeup of the House will depend on how Kentuckians think Bevin is doing when the November election rolls around.

“If they think he’s doing a good job, they want to vote for more Republicans; they think he’s doing a poor job, they may vote for more Democrats,” Briscoe said.

Today’s special elections will be in the following districts:

8th District

The district includes Hopkinsville, parts of Christian and Trigg counties.

Democrat Jeff Taylor is a retired economic development manager for the Tennessee Valley Authority and chair of the Christian County Democratic Party.

Republican Walker Thomas is a former Hopkinsville city councilman and owner of a roller skating rink.

The seat was vacated by former Democratic Rep. John Tilley, who Bevin appointed to be secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

54th District

The district includes Danville and all of Boyle and Casey counties.

Republican Daniel B. Elliott is an attorney and vice chairman of Boyle County’s Republican Party.

Democrat Bill Noelker is an assistant district attorney for Boyle and Mercer counties and a former Navy fighter pilot.

The seat was vacated by former Republican Rep. Mike Harmon, who was elected state auditor in November.

62nd District

The district includes Georgetown, Owen County, parts of Scott and Fayette counties.

Republican Phillip Pratt owns a landscaping company in Georgetown.

Democrat Chuck Tackett is a former Scott County magistrate. He unsuccessfully ran for the seat against former Rep. Ryan Quarles in 2014.

Quarles was elected agriculture commissioner in November.

98th District

The district includes South Shore, parts of Boyd and Greenup counties.

Democrat Lew Nicholls is a retired Greenup County circuit court judge and lay leader for the United Methodist Church.

Republican Tony Quillen is an engineering consultant and has been a Greenup County commissioner for 17 years.

The seat was vacated by former Democratic Rep. Tanya Pullin, who Bevin appointed to an administrative law judgeship.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.