So far, nine Democratic members of the Kentucky House of Representatives have announced they won’t seek re-election to the Republican-dominated chamber this November.
Some of the lawmakers are pursuing local elected offices, others are just retiring. And Democrats maintain that the exodus is not due to the frustrations of being the minority party in a state that has a Republican legislature and governor for the first time in history.
Former House Speaker Jody Richards, a Democratic representative from Bowling Green, announced Monday he wouldn’t seek re-election after 43 years in office.
“It’s just I know when it’s time to go,” Richards said in an interview. “I never intended to stay that long. But I was in leadership for most of that time. I enjoyed it and kept running.”
Richards holds the state record for longest-serving House Speaker — he held that position from 1995 until 2009.
‘Not much fun being in the minority’
Departing Democrats who are running for local offices include Reps. Will Coursey of Symsonia, who is running for Marshall County Judge Executive; James Kay of Versailles, who’s running for Woodford County Judge Executive; Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, who’s running for mayor of that city; and Gerald Watkins of Paducah, who’s running for Paducah City Commission.
Besides Richards, Reps. Darryl Owens of Louisville, Steve Riggs of Louisville, Arnold Simpson of Covington, Gerald Watkins of Paducah and Jim Wayne of Louisville have also announced their retirements.
“It’s not much fun being in the minority,” said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Democrats currently have just 36 of the 100 seats in the House after the GOP dominated elections in 2016, taking control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a century.
Republicans currently have 62 seats. There are also two vacant seats pending special elections next month.
During the 2017 and 2018 regular sessions, House Democrats have been relegated to the back bench. Republicans started last year’s legislative session by passing a flurry of bottled-up conservative priorities like right-to-work legislation, repealing the prevailing wage and a handful of anti-abortion measures.
Democrats have had little impact on the discussion beyond voicing opposition.
“There’s been a great sea change in Kentucky politics,” Cross said. “A lot of Democratic officials are going to be passing from the scene because they’re not in the majority anymore and many of them have already gone past the age of normal retirement from the legislature.”
Democrats Look Ahead To 2018 Elections
Brad Bowman, spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, said he was confident the party will field candidates that will win the seats again because of recent Republican scandals.
“People are seeing that for the first time, Republican majority rule means five representatives that are in the middle of sex scandals,” Bowman said.
“There is a lot of chaos going on right now. We plan to capitalize on every single bit of it. Some it will be with new faces.”
But Republicans will be looking to capitalize on the open elections, especially in western and eastern Kentucky districts that have trended Republican in recent years.
Rep. Will Coursey’s home of Marshall County voted widely in favor of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election with 12,322 votes compared to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 3,672 votes.
And in Warren County — home of outgoing Rep. Jody Richards — 28,673 voted for Trump compared to 16,966 for Clinton.
Al Cross said local Democrats could lose their edge without incumbents running.
“The advantage of incumbency is the key in House races,” Cross said. “It’s possible after a few years of incumbency to be a very familiar figure in your district and very hard to unseat.”
‘I think it’s all cyclical’
Louisville Rep. Jim Wayne said it was unfair to say the departures were the result of Democrats’ minority status.
“I think there are a variety of individual reasons,” Wayne said. “I don’t think it’s fair to generalize and say the Democrats are in the minority and therefore it’s not fun and we’re going to go home. I think that’s a generalization.”
Some Democrats ousted during the 2016 elections have launched campaigns to retake their old seats, including former Reps. Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville, Brent Yonts of Greenville, Jim Glenn of Owensboro and Cluster Howard of Jackson.
Former Speaker Richards said he thinks Democrats will regain control of the chamber someday.
“I think all of this is cyclical,” Richards said. “I think that the Republicans will have it for a while, then Democrats may have it for a while. I think it’s all cyclical.”
Would-be candidates have until Jan. 30 to file paperwork to run as a Republican or Democrat in primary elections this spring.