House GOP sees fertile ground in 2016 with Bevin win

11/04/2015 05:02 PM

Their hopes buoyed by a conservative wave that carried Gov.-elect Matt Bevin to a 9-point win on Tuesday, Republicans are optimistic in their prospects to retake control of Kentucky’s House of Representatives for the first time since 1921.

“I’ve been on the phone since seven o’clock this morning fielding calls from the candidates that we’ve been recruiting and looking at districts where we lacked a little bit of interest to this point,” state Rep. Jonathan Shell, chairman of the House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee, told Pure Politics in a phone interview on Wednesday.

“And in those districts where we lacked a little bit of interest, we’ve had some candidates this morning that have called that are going to be extremely, extremely good candidates.”

Kentucky is the only southern state in which Democrats maintain control of a legislative chamber, and the GOP made gains in the first round of elections after Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher took office in December 2003. Democrats held a 64-36 majority in the 2004 General Assembly, a lead that shrank to 57-43 by 2005. In 10 years that margin has narrowed minimally.

A handful of Republican candidates here have announced their bids against House incumbents like House Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, and Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, since July.

Shell, R-Lancaster, called Bevin’s successful gubernatorial election on Tuesday “icing on the cake” for Republican efforts to assume a majority in the statehouse, noting that his victory will help in recruitment and fundraising for the GOP caucus. Some donors, he said, will feel no obligation “to give to House Democrats anymore” with a Republican governor.

Shell said he expects to field Republican candidates “in almost every district in the state,” referencing Kentucky’s 100 House districts.

“This is going to be something that people have never seen in Kentucky before whenever it’s all said and done,” he said.

But House Speaker Greg Stumbo and others are equally bullish on their prospects as they move ahead into next year’s election cycle.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, alluded to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in his remarks to a subdued crowd at the Frankfort Convention Center after the defeats of Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen on Tuesday.

In an interview with Pure Politics, Stumbo said Democrats emerged from a grueling series of elections last year with their majority intact, and he expected to repeat that feat in 2016.

“I’m confident our candidates can survive whatever challenges lay ahead of them,” he said. “Now, if they (Republicans) want to start those races tonight, we can start ‘em tonight. If that’s what they want to do that’s fine, and we can go into gridlock, and that’s not going to be good for Kentucky, and it’s not going to be good for either party.

“So what I’m saying is, the olive branch is out there. We’re willing to work with you Gov. Bevin. We’re willing to find real solutions for the real problems of Kentucky, but now if they want to start the races tonight, I’m a big boy. We’ll start the races tonight.”

When asked about her party’s prospects in light of Republican victories in four of six constitutional races, Rep. Martha Jane King said at the Frankfort Convention Center Tuesday that incumbents should have an advantage given the local nature of their campaigns versus those on a statewide level.

She’s among those Democrats who’ve already drawn Republican opponents next year, with Logan County attorney Ami Brooks mounting a bid for King’s 16th House District.

“You have to work with your mayors and your elected officials to know what your district needs to come up here and make sure that it’s well represented, so to me staying focused on who I am and where I came from and the values that are important for my counties is always what I focus on regardless of who’s on top — who’s in Washington, who’s in Frankfort,” King said.

Shell, however, expects to gain at a minimum the five seats necessary to move the House into Republican control.

And he has a message for House Democrats who may be considering a change in their political allegiances.

“There’s going to be a point where it’s going to be switch now or forever hold your peace because we are going to have and we are going to field good enough candidates to where we’re not going to go begging to anybody ,” Shell said. “And so if people are wanting to, we will accept them with open arms, but we can’t hold off expecting for that to happen.”

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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