FRANKFORT-There will be several new faces in the Kentucky House of Representatives – but the partisan balance didn’t change much at all after Tuesday’s elections.
Republicans began the day with a 62-37 super majority (with one vacancy); they ended the night with a 61-39 super majority.
That super majority means the GOP can pass bills without help from Democrats; they can also pass revenue measures in the odd-year sessions with that super majority if they wish.
Democrats had hoped to cut into that large gap but failed. They flipped eight seats (which was about what most realists thought was the upper end of what they might accomplish). Their problem, however, was Republicans flipped seven of their own.
“We exchanged some real estate but we didn’t change the majority,” said Steve Robertson, a former Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman.
The exchange was largely wins by Democrats in urban areas while Republicans took seats from Democrats in more rural areas.
Teachers who were angry over minor changes to their pension system didn’t “remember in November” as they’d promised last spring – at least in sufficient numbers to dent the Republican hegemony in Frankfort.
The teachers who nearly daily protested the pension changes during the 2018 General Assembly are largely those who are active in the Kentucky Education Association and labor, said Les Fugate, a Republican and Senior Vice President of the Louisville public relations firm RunSwitch.
“They weren’t going to vote for Republicans anyway,” Fugate said. And as time went by, the anger and enthusiasm of teachers seemed to subside.
“No one felt a big change in their pensions,” Fugate said. Meanwhile, “I heard time and again from teachers: well, they put more money into education.” Republicans increased SEEK funding, the funding formula for K-12 public schools in 2018.
Democrats picked up seats in places like Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro and Henderson. But they lost seats in places like Bell County and western Kentucky. It’s a trend across the state and the nation as Democratic strength increasingly is found in urban and suburban areas while Republicans consolidate their hold on rural areas.
“These rural counties are just solid red,” said former Democratic state senator R. J. Palmer of Winchester. “I don’t know if it’s the abortion issue, the gay issue – it’s just not clear to me.”
There were some races which bucked the trend.
Democrat Ashley Lafferty defeated incumbent Republican Larry Brown in Floyd County, a heavily Democratic county long represented by former House Speaker Greg Stumbo. Brown defeated Stumbo in 2016, thought to be swept into power on Donald Trump’s extensive coat tails in Kentucky.
And Kathy Hinkle defeated Republican incumbent Jill York in Carter and Lawrence counties in northeastern Kentucky. The teacher resentment over pensions may have played a role.
York actually voted against the bill – but teachers were said to be angry that she voted for a procedural motion to move the bill for a vote prior to that. York also traditionally voted with labor which remains a force in northeastern Kentucky. But none of that was enough to protect her Tuesday.
There were some extremely close races. In Owensboro, Democrat Jim Glenn, who lost to Republican D.J. Johnson in 2016, reclaimed the seat by defeating Johnson by a single vote: 6,319 to 6,318.
In Richmond, Republican Deanna Frazier defeated Democrat Morgan Eaves by 23 votes for the seat previously held by C. Wesley Morgan whom Frazier defeated in the Republican primary.
Fugate said that race might represent a lost opportunity for Democrats. He noted the Kentucky Democratic Party spent significant money on a race outside of Louisville where Republican incumbent and Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne easily turned back a challenge by Diane Seaman.
That money might have made a difference in the Frazier-Eaves contest, Fugate said.
Fugate said the success of Republicans in defending their super majority is important in another way. It makes it all the more unlikely Democrats can take back the House in 2020.
“You have to assume Republicans will maintain their super majority in 2020, and that’s the race that goes on to re-district,” Fugate said. If Republicans are free to re-draw House districts, they are likely to make it much easier for Republicans to win in Jefferson County, the state’s most liberal and Democratic stronghold.
Republicans actually added to their super majority in the state Senate. Republican Robby Mills of Henderson gave up his House seat to run against Democratic Caucus Chair Dorsey Ridley, also of Henderson. That leaves only 10 Democrats in the 38-member Senate.
A national PAC which supports Republican state legislative candidates spent heavily in the Mills-Ridley race.