Political resolutions for 2016: What Kentucky's politicos may look to accomplish in the new year

12/31/2015 05:00 PM

Save more money. Eat healthier. Get in shape. Travel.

Everyone makes New Year’s resolutions, and those who hold office are no different.

As 2016 begins, here’s a look at what Kentucky politicos may be hoping to accomplish in the upcoming year.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Keep the Senate in Republican hands

McConnell’s landslide re-election in 2014 coincided with a GOP wave that pushed Senate Republicans into control of the chamber for the first time in Barack Obama’s presidency, picking up nine seats en route to a 54-member majority.

But of the 34 seats up for election in next year’s presidential cycle, Republicans hold 24. It’s a similar situation Senate Democrats faced in 2014, when they held 21 of the 36 seats up for election that year.

Some of the upcoming battles are taking shape in states currently held by Senate Republicans but won by Obama in 2008 and 2012 — Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

This year’s presidential campaign will be a factor in upcoming Senate races, but McConnell has urged members of his conference up for re-election to focus on their jobs in Washington as they prepare to face the electorate back home.

“Ultimately, the presidential election sure is going to have an impact, but most of us here in the Senate except those who are seeking the presidency aren’t going to have much to do with who the nominee becomes,” McConnell said in a recent interview with Politico. “So in the meantime we want to accomplish as much as we can for the country that we can achieve with this president.”

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul: Win the Kentucky caucus

Sure, Paul’s ultimate goal is to capture the Republican presidential nomination and then the White House.

After the Republican Party of Kentucky changed from a May primary election to a March caucus so he could run for president and defend his Senate seat, Paul should hope to have most of Kentucky’s presidential delegates in his column at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next July. He also helped fund the state’s GOP caucus with a $250,000 transfer to RPK in September.

But that’s assuming Paul remains in the GOP presidential hunt by July. He’s still bullish on his chances, but Paul currently averages seventh in the Republican field in recent polling with a 2.6 percent average, with a sixth-place finish in the latest CNN/ORC International poll Dec. 23 where Paul received 4 percent support, according to Real Clear Politics.

Kentucky Democratic Party: Field competitive congressional challengers

Calls for Paul to drop his presidential bid and focus instead on his Senate seat have quieted since Nov. 3, when his most likely Democratic challenger, outgoing Auditor Adam Edelen, lost his re-election campaign despite a vast monetary edge on his opponent.

Edelen has said he plans to return to the private sector after a 4-point loss to Auditor-elect Mike Harmon, leaving Democrats with limited options before the Jan. 31 filing deadline.

Democrats also have yet to name candidates for five of the state’s Republican-held U.S. House seats. The 1st Congressional District race has primarily been a three-way GOP campaign among outgoing Agriculture Commissioner James Comer; Michael Pape, district director for retiring U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield; and Hickman County Attorney Jason Batts after Democrats such as state Sen. Dorsey Ridley of Henderson and state Rep. Gerald Watkins of Paducah announced they would not run in the district that has, like others, trended conservative.

If Democrats want to counter the perception that the party is in decline in Kentucky, waving a white flag in this year’s congressional elections will be a poor start.

Gov. Matt Bevin: A smooth first year in office

Bevin, the second Republican elected governor since former Gov. Louie Nunn left office in 1971, will get his first stab at enacting pieces of his gubernatorial platform and offering a two-year spending plan when the General Assembly convenes on Tuesday.

How Bevin interacts with the legislature remains to be seen, and he’s already given an early glimpse at how he will wield his executive power by unilaterally amending the state’s marriage licenses and striking down executive actions by his predecessor, Gov. Steve Beshear, on felon voting rights and minimum wages for government workers and contractors.

Bevin’s actions will have myriad effects on this year’s legislative races, from pushing certain bills and funding priorities to helping GOP candidates and caucuses on the campaign trail.

That’s not to mention how early missteps could impact the rest of his first term and his own political prospects in a 2019 re-election campaign.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo: Keep the state House Democratic

Stumbo’s 54-member majority on Election Day stands at 50 members today, thanks to defections to the GOP (Rep. Jim Gooch, of Providence, and Rep. Denny Butler, of Louisville) and appointments by Bevin (Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley, of Hopkinsville, and Tanya Pullin, a South Shore Democrat named an administrative law judge).

Once Harmon and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Ryan Quarles leave the General Assembly upon taking office on Monday, Stumbo’s Democratic caucus will hold a four-seat majority with a 50-46 lead, barring other departures from his caucus.

At best, Stumbo can hope for a Democratic sweep in the four special elections in the 8th, 54th, 62nd and 98th House districts to again push his caucus to a 54-46 majority heading into a campaign year following Democratic wins in just two of the state’s six constitutional elections.

Republican wins in those four elections, however, would render the state House a 50-50 tie between Democrats and the GOP, which has not held majority control of the chamber since 1921.

Stumbo has been optimistic of his party’s chances in this year’s election cycle, particularly with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Stumbo referred to as the “Arkansas traveler” in an Election Night speech, the likely Democratic nominee for president. Clinton, however, is no sure bet in a state that last voted for the Democratic candidate in a presidential contest in 1996, when her husband won a second term.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover: Give the GOP control of the legislature

Kentucky’s House is the last legislative chamber in the South currently held by Democrats, and electoral successes for Republicans in 2016 would likely propel the longest serving minority floor leader to the speaker’s chair.

A GOP-led House would also signal the beginning of a more conservative agenda in Frankfort with a Republican-controlled General Assembly for the first time in modern history.

Republican House candidates will campaign to an electorate that handed Bevin a 9-point win with 30.7 percent turnout, and they’ll benefit from McConnell, who will not have to focus on his re-election campaign, and his supportive groups.

The Courier-Journal first reported that the super political action committee Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which spent more than $7 million in McConnell’s 2014 re-election campaign, raised $265,000 and plans to be active in next year’s general election, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Republican House candidates will also have Bevin in office and GOP fundraiser Mac Brown as RPK chairman, which will likely help their campaign coffers heading into the 2016 elections.

Harmon, Quarles, Secretary of State Alison Lundgergan Grimes, Attorney General-elect Andy Beshear and Treasurer-election Allison Ball: Plot the political course wisely

Down-ticket constitutional offices haven’t been springboards for higher office in the 21st century.

Former Democratic Congressman Ben Chandler, a former attorney general and auditor, lost the 2003 gubernatorial campaign before holding the 6th Congressional District from 2004 through 2013. Former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear ascended to power in 2007, more than two decades following his terms as attorney general and lieutenant governor.

Other than those two instances, constitutional officers have come up empty when seeking higher office in recent election cycles.

Comer is trying to rebound after an 83-vote loss in this year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, which featured his denials of abusing a college ex-girlfriend in the campaign’s waning days. Outgoing Attorney General Jack Conway lost by nearly double digits in the general election to Bevin. That came five years after Conway topped former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary only to lose by more than 11 points to Paul, who drubbed former Secretary of State Trey Grayson by 23 percent in that year’s GOP primary.

Grimes was crushed by McConnell in a 15-point loss last year. Former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who was recently released from federal prison after his conviction for misusing tax dollars while in office, failed in a 2011 bid for lieutenant governor, and Stumbo, then attorney general, lost while running for lieutenant governor in the 2007 Democratic primary.

Those in constitutional office in 2016 with higher political ambitions may want to learn from the past when considering their own electoral futures.

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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