Republican observers urge new House supermajority to exercise patience while Democrats say party needs to rethink strategy, message

11/09/2016 10:15 PM

As Republicans retake control of the state’s House of Representatives for the first time since 1921, GOP operatives say their party’s representatives in the lower chamber should proceed with some caution to protect their unanticipated supermajority.

For Kentucky Democrats, it’s time to regroup after the combination of a heavy anti-Hillary Clinton wave and big money swept away one of their last bastions of influence in Frankfort.

“Democrats have to go back to the drawing board,” Democratic consultant Matt Erwin, of Louisville, told Pure Politics Wednesday, a day after his party lost 17 seats in the House en route to a 64-36 Republican takeover.

Todd Inman, a Republican operative from Owensboro, said a “perfect storm” of strong anti-Clinton and pro-Donald Trump sentiments, recruitment of quality candidates and $2 million in spending from the GOP super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership toppled the Democrat-led House on Tuesday, with House Speaker Greg Stumbo among the long-term incumbents defeated.

“They just got overwhelmed,” he said.

Without the ability to peel away votes and prevent certain measures if Republicans vote as a bloc, Inman expects Democrats will cross party lines to “vote their conscience” more often, with some possibly switching party registration to join the GOP supermajority.

But he said Republicans should avoid the urge to relieve the “pent-up demand” and enact wholesale legislative changes during their first session with complete authority in the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Republicans also hold a 27-11 supermajority in the Senate.

“You can’t unwind that clock immediately, so I think they’re already starting discussions on a systematic, well-thought-out approach,” Inman said. “The good thing is the Kentucky legislature is obviously in the odd year. It’s non-budget, so you get some of the issues and it allows the new majorities to start getting to know each other. Committee chairmen can start understanding their members.”

“I know talking to several of the members last night, especially the House members, they were saying, ‘We’ve got to go back and make sure we get this right. We’ve been given not only an opportunity, but a mandate,’ and they’re taking it seriously,” he continued. “It was a celebration last night, but today they’ve got to get down to work.”

That was a point echoed by GOP operative Grayson Smith, of Salyersville, who saw the elections as a “repudiation” of President Barack Obama and those who support him.

Some issues he sees on the horizon include moving elections for constitutional offices to coincide with presidential cycles and reconsidering legislative districts that have been drawn by Democrats for nearly a century.

He called Tuesday’s election results “the opportunity that Republicans in this state have been looking for.”

“They’ve got complete control of both houses, the governor’s office, and the Republicans have a vision for the growth of this state, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they enact it,” Smith said.

“I think Gov. (Matt) Bevin has an ambitious plan, and he clearly has to think he has a mandate from the people to enact it as much as he can. … I hope the legislature and the governor’s office exude some patience and a little bit of restraint in not trying to do everything at once, making sure the public is educated on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

Democratic strategists and operatives say after enduring heavy losses this year and in last year’s constitutional elections, it’s time for the some soul-searching within the Kentucky Democratic Party after incumbents like Rep. Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville, and Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, were unexpectedly ousted from office.

They also say the shake-up of House Democratic leadership will open the door for new faces in positions of power, not only within the lower chamber, but also the Democratic Party as a whole.

Strategist Jared Smith, of Lexington, said the national political environment and the unprecedented Republican spending doomed House Democrats across the state.

“A very wise political consultant, one of my mentors, told me that even rockstars get slaughtered down-ballot,” he said. “When the top of your ticket runs as poorly as Hillary Clinton did, it takes minor miracles to win down-ticket.”

Democrats must now present themselves as the opposition party and work harder to appeal to rural voters to begin chipping away at the GOP supermajority in the House, he said.

“Democrats cannot afford to become the party of Louisville and Lexington,” he said. “It’s the same argument at the national level. We somehow along the way ceased to be the party of the working people, and in FDR’s time and JFK’s time, we were the party of the working people, and that’s been lost.”

“Frankly, a good cleanse was had last night,” he added. “You can’t rebuild Rome until Rome’s done burning.”

Democratic operative Colmon Elridge, of Georgetown, said the state party needs “to get our act together” after Tuesday’s elections.

He, too, said Democrats need to better present their values to a wider electorate and rethink their recruitment strategies if they hope to regain a majority in the House and retake constitutional offices recently lost to Republicans.

“We tell people to wait their turn, and we do that to our own demise because while we need to be extraordinarily grateful and show courtesies to those who have paved the way in our party and have helped build our party, the more you tell people to stand aside, to wait their turn to lead, the more you’re telling them their voices don’t matter in the decision-making processes that guide a party,” Elridge said.

“Where you saw the Republican Party turn around is when it started to empower people like (former Secretary of State) Trey Grayson. That then led to folks like (Agriculture Commissioner) Ryan Quarles and (Treasurer) Allison Ball and (House Republican Caucus Campaign Chairman) Jonathan Shell. It allowed for a new generation to come up, bring some good ideas and then work with the old guard.”

The Democratic Party’s losses and near losses in the 2015 cycle should have been a wake-up call, Elridge said, adding that the party should avoid simply attributing all of its electoral hardships this year to “a tailwind or wave that we did not see coming.”

“We should have been paying attention from what happened in the governor’s race and really down-ticket in 2015 and learning our lesson instead of always having an out,” he said. “The out four years and even eight years ago was that we had a black president and that was too much for Kentucky. The out this time is going to be Donald Trump just tapped into something that we couldn’t compete with.

“If the excuse is we can’t compete with the opponent’s message, then we either need to refine our message, refine our strategy or stop competing, and I’m not advocating that we stop competing.”


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