Open Seat Watch: West Ky. House seat offers window into changing voter trends

10/31/2012 06:48 AM

(UPDATED) MAYFIELD — Western Kentucky is the unquestioned epicenter of next week’s state legislative elections, featuring four races for open seats.

And one of the most wide-open — and certainly the most contentious — of those four is the race to fill the open seat of Democrat Fred Nesler, who resigned to take a job in the Agriculture Department. The 2nd state House District, which covers Graves County and part of southern McCracken County, was once as reliably Democratic as the rest of the Purchase Area. No more.

Voters in the district could send a member of the GOP to represent them for the first time ever as more residents have voted Republican over the last 20 years. It started with federal races and spread to the local level.

Republican Richard Heath, who owns Heath Building Materials in Mayfield, said he had wanted to run for public office and jumped at the chance when Nesler announced in December he wouldn’t run for an 11th term. Kelly Whitaker is a pharmacist at a locally-owned pharmacy and Graves County School board member. Here’s a closer look at the race:

The ads have been flying in the race.

Heath and the Republicans have sought to tie Whitaker to the national Democratic Party’s platform, which supports gay marriage and doesn’t call for making abortion illegal — two areas Whitaker says she disagrees with.

Democrats, meanwhile, have targeted Heath with two lines of attack that include inaccuracies. A mailer from Whitaker’s campaign claimed Heath supports changing the tax code to apply the sales tax to food, which is currently exempt. But Heath explicitly said in the interview with Pure Politics above that he opposes that specific provision.

UPDATED, Oct. 31: The Whitaker campaign based its claim about Heath on a mailer from the Kentucky Republican Party that says Heath supports the House GOP leaders’ approach toward reforming the tax code. Among the principles outlined in the House Republicans’ agenda is to create a tax code “void of special interest tax exemptions.”

Kim Geveden, Whitaker’s consultant, said among the exemptions to Kentucky’s sales taxes are food and medicine.

But Heath said in a phone interview Wednesday that he didn’t consider sales tax exemptions for food, medicine or farm equipment to be special interests.

And an outside group supporting its Democrats saw its radio ad against Heath taken off Bristol Broadcasting stations on Tuesday for claiming Heath’s “family businesses have received thousands of dollars in subsidies from the federal government.” The company cited by the Kentucky Family Values super PAC ad is Heath Building Supplies, which owned by Heath’s brother.

Heath, according to a search of the Secretary of State’s business filings site isn’t an officer in that company.

Heath, who owned a farm until 1985, said he did receive federal Conservation Resource Program subsidies that paid him $60 an acre over his roughly 75 acres in the early 1980s. Those subsidies were essentially rent money for him not to farm that land as a way for the government to keep grain prices up and blunt soil erosion.

“Had they not paid that, I could have rented it out to a neighbor, so that didn’t make or break the farm,” Heath said. “If the Democrats want to make that argument, that will work in my favor because all the farmers in the district rely on subsidies. It’s just part of the agriculture process we’re in.”


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