20 House races to watch on Tuesday as parties jockey for control of chamber

11/02/2014 03:06 PM

The math is simple: state House Republicans need to defend the seats they have and pick up five more to take control of the chamber for the first time since 1921. But the path for how they do it is anything but simple with dozens of contested races and as many as 20 in play heading into Tuesday.

Thanks to redistricting and retirements, the parties are battling in six contested open seats. Democrats have 52 incumbents seeking reelection on Tuesday and Republicans 42, so the GOP actually will need to net nine seats for a 51-member majority, or at least come close enough to convince a Democrat or two to join their ranks.

The races will not only affect the future of legislative policy, but also the trajectory of the parties heading into the 2015 governor’s race and beyond. Here’s a look at 15 key House races to watch on Election Day, plus a few others that could get interesting as the votes are tallied Tuesday night.

1) 13th House District: Rep. Jim Glenn, D-Owensboro, versus Alan Braden, Republican from Owensboro

Expect Glenn’s road to reelection to be one of the toughest and closest races on Tuesday. He’s twice won by slim margins — 206 votes in 2010 and 251 votes in 2012 — and pro-Republican groups have spent heavily in the district in hopes of putting Braden over the edge. Democrats, though, have poured money in as well. Glenn’s also facing an uphill climb in fundraising at last check, with the most recent campaign finance reports available through the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance’s website showing the incumbent with a $3,947 cash disadvantage 32 days before the election. Braden had raised $20,461 more than Glenn at that point and spent two times more than the incumbent.

2) 3rd House District: Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, versus Randy Bridges, Republican from Paducah

Another race the GOP has targeted, Watkins is a first-term incumbent in a conservative, Paducah-centric district. He won the seat by 2,943 votes in 2012 with President Barack Obama on the ballot, but anti-Obama fervor could sweep him out of office. Like the 13th House District, groups of both political parties have flooded voters’ airwaves and mailboxes this cycle and both candidates have taken their lumps. Watkins had been outraised by $7,219, but he held a sizable $17,794 cash lead 32 days before the election. This is a race Democrats and Republicans alike will be watching intently on Election Day.

3) 39th House District (open): Russ Meyer, Democrat from Nicholasville, versus Jonah Mitchell, Republican from Nicholasville

The seat vacated by Rep. Bob Damron of Nicholasville, who is running for Jessamine County judge-executive, is technically in Democrats’ hands, and they expect to hold onto it. But in an increasingly conservative district, this will likely be a close race and could be a possible pickup for Republicans as groups from both sides pour money into the district. Still, Meyer, mayor of Nicholasville, is a popular officeholder and has netted a number of endorsements that should help him earn votes from Republicans and Democrats alike. The Lexington Herald-Leader, National Rifle Association and Wilmore Mayor Harold Rainwater, head of the city council of Jessamine County’s more conservative towns that’s no longer part of the district, have backed his candidacy. As of 32 days before the election, Meyer was one of the top Democrats in terms of fundraising and held a $44,840 cash advantage on Mitchell.

4) 6th House District: Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, versus Keith Travis, Republican from Benton

Coursey’s road to reelection became rockier after a former legislative secretary filed a retaliation suit against him, alleging he had her transferred after she voiced complaints about inappropriate behavior toward other staffers and interns. Coursey countered with a defamation lawsuit, and the dueling court actions have proven ample fodder for television ads against him by Republican groups. The 6th House District will be one to keep an eye on to see whether these negative attacks changed voters’ opinions of the incumbent or galvanized support around him. The incumbent held a nearly six-digit cash advantage on Travis 32 days before the election, allowing him to air a number of television ads and direct-mail pieces in the weeks leading up to Tuesday.

5) 29th House District: Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, versus Dave Stengel, Democrat from Louisville

This race has crept into political conversations as a potential gain for Democrats. Bratcher hasn’t faced tough challenges in recent election cycles, but Stengel once held the seat he now seeks, serving in the House from 1992-1996. The challenger vacated his seat and served as Jefferson County’s commonwealth’s attorney until he left office last year. Bratcher succeeded Stengel in the House, and he seems to have acknowledged the stiff challenge from his predecessor, given the incumbent’s fundraising activity. Bratcher has raised $94,205, according to his 15-day pre-election report to KREF with $15,875 on hand. Stengel had raised $78,470 with $67,448 on hand, according to his 32-day pre-election report.

6) 49th House District (open): Mike Nemes, Republican from Shepherdsville, versus Linda Belcher, Democrat from Shepherdsville

The race for the district covering about half of Bullitt County features two former lawmakers vying for a return to the state House. Belcher has deeper roots in the area, having represented the district for two terms before her defeat by Republican Rep. Russell Webber of Shepherdsville by 1,205 votes in 2012. Before that, her husband, Larry Belcher, represented the district for years until his death in 2008. Webber was redistricted into the 26th House District, paving the way for Belcher’s entry in the open seat. Nemes, a one-term representative, recently moved to the area after his defeat to Democratic Rep. Denny Butler of Louisville by 2,449 votes in 2012. Belcher had $38,544 on hand 32 days before the election compared to $12,681 for Nemes, who also has $15,639 tucked away in his primary election account.

7) 91st House District: Rep. Toby Herald, R-Beattyville, versus Cluster Howard, Democrat from Jackson

If the Bratcher-Stengel race is the GOP’s top concern in defending an incumbent, this may be the second. Herald has won ho-hum race before after besting then-Rep. Ted Edmonds by 134 votes, giving some Republicans hope he’ll be able to eke out victory again to win a second term. Herald spent little to win in 2012, and he’s making that a pattern. Howard, an administrator at Hazard Community and Technical College, had nearly as much cash left in his coffers 32 days before the election — $13,744 — as Herald had raised in the primary and general election seasons combined — $15,015.

8) 53rd House District (open): Kent Stevens, Democrat from Lawrenceburg, versus James Tipton, Republican from Taylorsville

The newly-created district covering Spencer and Anderson counties and a sliver of Bullitt County has attracted its share of outside spending as Democrats and Republicans jockey to add a new member to their ranks. Stevens benefits from name recognition as he’s making his fifth run for state representative in the area, winning once in 2008 before losing twice to Republican Rep. Kim King of Harrodsburg in 2010 and 2012, the latter by 4,708 votes. But Tipton holds a sizable fundraising lead, collecting $84,629 and spending $78,820 to win the open seat, according to his 15-day pre-election finance report. Stevens had raised $19,830 as of his 32-day pre-election report.

9) 55th House District: Rep. Kim King, R-Harrodsburg, versus Jacqueline Coleman, Democrat from Nicholasville

King had been on early watch lists as a potential upset, but both sides say she has focused her attention on winning reelection after hitting the campaign trail for others. Both King and Coleman, a Jessamine County teacher and Emerge Kentucky graduate, are well known in the district, as Coleman’s father, Jack Coleman, represented the area for 14 years in the state House. The candidates have also aggressively hit the fundraising circuit. King netted $92,290 15 days before Election Day compared to $77,049 for Coleman 32 days out.

10) 62nd House District: Rep. Ryan Quarles, R-Georgetown, versus Chuck Tackett, Democrat from Georgetown

Democrats see this as a potential sleeper race for them, but Republicans expect Quarles to win a third term on Tuesday. Tackett, a Scott County magistrate, was recruited by Gov. Steve Beshear to enter the race and he’s well known in Owen County, which was added to the 62nd in the 2013 redistricting process, through his farming operations. Quarles hasn’t taken the challenge lightly, out-raising Tackett by $43,577 as of 15 days before the election.

11) 23rd House District: Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, versus Jeff Jobe, Republican from Glasgow

The race for the 23rd House District has taken a particularly ugly turn as the campaigns and outside groups invest in brutal advertising to sway voters. Bell and the Kentucky Democratic Party took heat for a direct-mail piece highlighting Jobe’s arrests for impaired driving that included his Social Security number and other personal information in a police citation. Jobe, a newspaper publisher in Glasgow, and GOP groups have aired television ads calling Bell, one of the Democratic caucus’ more conservative members, an “extreme” liberal for supporting a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license as well as an unpaid tax lien. Bell has outraised his opponent by $23,162 15 days before the election.

12) 7th House District: Rep. Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro, versus John Warren, Democrat from Owensboro

Miles, too, has gone negative in her first run for reelection after airing a pair of ads hitting Warren for a pair of protective orders sought by his ex-wife in their 2004 divorce. Warren was never charged with domestic violence, but Miles’ television ad includes a mugshot from the Democrat’s arrest in an unrelated open container incident. Warren’s campaign and outside groups have targeted Miles for her vote on bills blocking eminent domain for natural gas liquids pipelines and accusing her of collecting pay from both the state and Republican U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie’s office, where she works as a field representative. The 7th House District has seen its share of competitive races in recent cycles, with former Democratic Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis, who resigned last year after three legislative staffers accused him of sexual harassment, winning by five votes in 2012 and Miles winning a low-turnout Dec. 10 special election to replace him by 112 votes. Miles held a sizable fundraising lead — nearly $50,000 — 32 days before the election.

13) 74th House District: Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Mt. Sterling, versus David Hale, Republican from Wellington

Henderson’s race for a fourth term has flown under the radar publicly, but he’s become a target for GOP groups as Election Day nears. The 74th House District covering Montgomery, Powell and Menifee counties doesn’t seem like ripe ground for a Republican gain as Henderson won his last election challenge by 3,504 votes. Still, Republicans hope Obama’s dismal favorability numbers can help tilt the race in their favor. Henderson raised nearly $13,000 more than Hale 32 days before the election, but the Republican holds a $3,281 cash advantage.

14) 32nd House District (open): Phil Moffett, Republican from Louisville, versus Ashley Miller, Democrat from Louisville

The race between a former GOP gubernatorial candidate and a former Miss Kentucky has been a key target for Democrats, with its share of negative campaign tactics from outside groups. Should Miller, another Emerge Kentucky candidate, lose her bid against Moffett, it won’t be for lack of trying. Democrats and Republicans alike note that she’s been campaigning aggressively in the conservative district, and she had more campaign cash on hand 32 days before the election — $59,693 — than Moffett raised for his general election campaign as of 15 days out — $40,517. But Republicans expect the seat vacated by GOP Rep. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville, who is running for state Senate, will remain in their column.

15) 50th House District: Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, versus Audrey Haydon, Democrat from Bardstown

Haydon, a Bardstown attorney and another Emerge Kentucky graduate, has pressed Floyd on the fundraising circuit and television airwaves in her push to deny him a fifth term. Like Miller, Haydon had more cash in hand — $39,022 — than Floyd had raised in the general election cycle — $28,216 — as of 32 days out. Still, Democrats concede Floyd has built enough buffers in the Nelson County district to survive another well-funded Democratic challenger. His last opponent, former Bardstown Mayor Dick Heaton, spent $105,609 more than Floyd in their 2012 race and lost by 1,460 votes.

Other races of note:

96th House District: Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, versus Barry Webb, Democrat from Webbville

The race between York and Webb is a rematch from their 2009 special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Robin Webb, who won a seat in the state Senate. York bested Webb by 882 votes, and Democrats believe this year’s version will be a competitive race in the end while Republicans say York is safe.

12th House District: Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, versus Dianne Mackey, Republican from Utica

Gooch was targeted early, with his remarks on how a woman’s underwear wound up in his jacket pocket at a legislative conference providing advertising material for Mackey. The Republican Party of Kentucky also mailed a controversial direct-mail piece against Gooch recently that used photos of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Islamic State militants to attack his support to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Democrats expect Gooch will retain.

25th House District: Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, versus Jim DuPlessis, Republican from Elizabethtown

Lee has been the target of GOP groups in recent weeks, but he’s running a well-financed campaign after spending $84,608 as of 15 days before the election. He had more cash on hand 15 days out — $35,298 — than DuPlessis had raised in the 32 days before the election — $28,844.

48th House District: Rep. Bob DeWeese, R-Louisville, versus Gretchen Hunt, Democrat from Louisville

Democrats and Republicans say this race is more competitive than it should be given DeWeese’s representation of the district since first winning in 1992 and his spot as House Republican caucus chair. Hunt, another Emerge Kentucky candidate, had outraised DeWeese by $19,203 in her 32-day, pre-election report, but it will be tough to win in the conservative district.

10th House District (open): Alan Claypool, Republican from McDaniel, versus Dean Schamore, Democrat from Hardinsburg

Outside groups on both sides are spending in this race, but Democrats and some Republicans believe this will end up in the Democrats’ column on Tuesday. Schamore led in fundraising by $25,791 32 days before the election. The seat was last held by retiring Republican Rep. Dwight Butler of Hardinsburg, making this a potential pickup for Democrats if their beliefs hold true.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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