By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
It’s a special June 25 election for a traditional Democratic House seat representing Woodford County and parts of Fayette and Franklin counties.
But, the outcome will likely have consequences for the entire state.
Republicans are the minority in the House with 45 seats to the Democrats’ 54. But they have hopes of taking over in the 2014 elections and they view this election as the first step.
The vacancy occurred when Democrat Carl Rollins of Midway resigned his seat to take a job with the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.
Republican Lyen Crews, vice president of business and financial affairs at Midway College, Democrat James L. Kay II, an attorney who worked most recently for House Democrats; and independent John-Mark Hack, a former official in the Paul Patton administration, are the candidates.
Democrats have held the seat for years and enjoy a registration advantage of just over 18,000 to just over 10,000. Money will be critical, too.
Kay raised around $90,000 during the first reporting period, while Crews took in just under $50,000. Hack, who has said he will have enough to run a competitive race, has raised only about $6,000. Both state parties contributed to their candidates.
But outside groups are putting money in as well, primarily on the Republican side.
The Republican Leadership Committee, based in Washington D.C., has spent more than $60,000 on behalf of Crews, who in 2010 came within 740 votes of upsetting Rollins.
Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, the House Democratic Caucus chair, said Kay has generated most of the financial support inside the district while “statewide and national PACs and corporate money are trying to buy the race” for Crews. She said Kay’s fundraising edge shows his support from local voters.
However, the outside money being spent on behalf of Crews is also an indication how important the race is to Republicans. But it’s just as important for Democrats, said Danny Briscoe, a Louisville political consultant and former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman.
“If Democrats don’t win, then it gives momentum to the Republicans and further narrows their margin,” Briscoe said.
“Whether it’s accurate or not, there’s a feeling out there that the Republicans are getting closer and closer to the majority,” Briscoe continued. “Republicans seem to believe they can take over in 2014. If they win this race, it just gives them more momentum.”
“It is very important to us for many reasons,” said Rep. John “Bam” Carney of Campbellsville, the House Republican whip. “It’s huge for 2014 because it will continue the momentum we gained in 2012.” That was the year, Republicans picked up four seats to create the current alignment.
Overly said Democrats see the special election as an opportunity for Democrats to “generate momentum for our caucus and actually growing that momentum for us in 2014.” She said Democrats are determined to hold onto their House majority.
The race will look familiar to Kentucky voters, even those unfamiliar with central Kentucky politics.
Carney didn’t take long to mention the name of Barack Obama, signaling a likely Republican strategy. One television ad has already been broadcast saying Kay helped implement Obama’s health care reform and suggesting Hack, as a former Democrat, isn’t likely to be much different.
Overly said that isn’t the issue for the voters in the district. Education and jobs are the issues on voters’ minds, she said.
Carney, House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover and several other Republican lawmakers have already visited the district to campaign on behalf of Crews and raise money.
So have Democrats, according to Overly. They’re going door-to-door, manning phone banks and helping Kay raise money.
Special elections — especially those outside the usual fall and spring election cycles — are notorious for low turnouts. That’s part of the reason so much attention is focused on the race.
But Overly said that may actually favor Democrats and Kay because low turnout elections tend to be “decided by your core voters, your base — and that’s a Democratic district.”
Carney talked about Democrats’ having held the uninterrupted majority in the House since 1922. (Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 2000.)
“If people truly aren’t happy with the House leadership over the last 90 years, and I think they give it a poor grade, then I’d suggest it’s time to try some new ideas,” said Carney.
Those new ideas are likely to translate into support for such things a right-to-work laws, repeal of the prevailing wage law, greater restrictions on abortion, resistance to the expansion of Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act and more business-friendly tax codes — all of which currently enjoy support in the Republican Senate.
So while much of Kentucky may pay little attention to the June 25 election, the results could have a dramatic impact on the political landscape of all of Kentucky.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.