State Senate elections outlook: Five toss-up races and a lot of potential

06/30/2010 10:57 AM

With Republicans clinging to control of the state Senate by four seats, this November’s elections will determine the balance of power.

Nineteen of the Senate’s 38 seats are up for election this November. Of those, 15 are contested. Not all of those will be competitive but at least 11 of them start as either toss-ups or potential battlegrounds.

Both parties will have to pick and choose where to spend resources, which should reveal which districts truly are in play. Overall, the Republican Senate caucus, being in the majority, will likely be better funded as they try to hold or expand their ranks.

And much is at stake. The Senate has been the Republicans’ consistent foothold of power in Frankfort over the last decade. Keeping control of the chamber is a priority for the party because the General Assembly will decide how to redistrict the legislative seats after the 2010 U.S. Census is completed. Not having control of one of the chambers would dramatically decrease Republicans’ input into how those districts will be re-drawn.

Democrats, meanwhile, blame the Senate Republicans for blocking key parts of their agenda. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, for instance, has pushed expanded gambling as his top priority, which has not been received well by Senate President David Williams, a Burkesville Republican. Beshear has said he wants nothing more than to pick up enough seats for the Democrats to take control of the chamber.

Below is cn|2’s first draft of the outlooks for the 15 contested races. Remember, this is only the first draft and much will most certainly change once the candidates start hitting the trail, the parties start spending money and the ads start flying. The classifications are based on candidate profiles and past performance, fund-raising, voting patterns of the districts and conversations with political operatives and officials from both parties.

2nd District (Ballard, Marshall, McCracken counties)– TOSS-UP

Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah

This seat is the Democrats’ top target for a pick-up. And the Republicans are backing the independent candidate.

Sen. Bob Leeper, the only independent lawmaker in Frankfort, is running for his sixth term and second as an independent. (He previously was elected as a Democrat in 1990, 1994 and 1998, then as a Republican in 2002.)

Leeper narrowly won the 2006 election over former Democratic congressman Carroll Hubbard, who was still haunted by being convicted in the 1990s for campaign finance violations. Republican Neil Archer finished a distant third but still siphoned off about one-fifth of the vote.

This time, Leeper drew a challenge from former Democratic state Rep. Rex Smith, a well-known Paducah businessman. Republican candidate William Michael East has so far run a limited campaign and looks to be less of a factor than Archer was in 2006.

Unlike Leeper’s last race, the Kentucky Republicans and Senate President David Williams has pledged to publicly and strongly support Leeper, whom Williams picked as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee last year.

6th District (Hopkins, Muhlenberg, Ohio) – LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD

State Sen. Jerry Rhoads, who has risen to be a Democratic leader in the state Senate, looks to be in control as he seeks a third term. But he won’t be able to completely dismiss his Republican opponent, Jack W. Whitfield. While Whitfield is no relation, he shares the last name of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville.

Rhoads, who is known as a hard-working campaigner, starts the summer with a slight campaign cash advantage, $23,975 to $14,149.

8th District (Daviess and McLean)– TOSS-UP

Despite being in public life for more than 30 years as a state lawmaker and agriculture commissioner, Sen. David Boswell could be the most vulnerable Democratic

Sen. David Boswell, D-Owensboro

incumbent in the Senate this year.

Boswell, of Owensboro, is coming off a lackluster congressional campaign in 2008, and he has drawn a hard-working Republican opponent in former state Rep. Joe Bowen, an Owensboro businessman.

Bowen starts the general election with nearly 10 times the amount of campaign cash as the incumbent Boswell, $62,506 to $6,467.

The advantage Boswell has going for him is that voter registration numbers still favor Democrats by a 2-1 margin, although that hasn’t meant what it once did in general elections in western Kentucky. And Boswell solidly beat Republican Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green in Daviess County two years ago in the congressional race, 27,108 to 16,099 (The other county in this senate district, McLean, isn’t in the 2nd Congressional District). But that was widely considered to be a Democratic year and this cycle is not.

10th District (Hardin and part of Jefferson)– LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD

Democrats have put Republican Sen. Elizabeth Tori of Radcliff at or near the top of their target list for years. Each time Tori, a petite grandmother, out-works them and cruises to re-election. Tori faces Dennis L. Parrett, a conservative Democratic businessman. Parrett enters the general election with $14,772 compared to Tori’s $9,547.

12th District (Fayette County) – LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD

Another top target of Democrats in past years, Republican Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington has proven that hard work and likeability go a long way in state legislative races. Kerr out-raised and out-worked her 2006 opponent, former Supreme Court Justice James E. Keller, and won with 56.6 percent of the vote.

This year she faces another well-known Democrat, former Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins, who will likely have the horse industry helping him raise money. So far, neither has much cash in their accounts. Kerr has $13,944 left over after easily winning her Republican primary and Blevins, who was unopposed this spring, has $2,412.

18th District (Bracken, Mason, Lewis, Carter, Robertson and Greenup counties)– LEANS DEMOCRATIC HOLD

This is a re-match of the August 2009 special election that Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson narrowly won over Republican Jack Ditty, a dermatologist

Webb, a longtime state representative from Carter County, has raised nearly $50,000 so far compared to Ditty’s $12,651. When Webb won the seat last year, she did so by crushing Ditty in Carter County and edging him in Robertson but losing the other four counties.

Those results might signal that the race starts as a toss-up, but Republicans are looking elsewhere first to try to pick off Democratic seats. Ditty may have hurt his standing with GOP leaders after a stunt during the General Assembly in which he met with Webb in her legislative office while the person he was with secretly video taped Webb.

20th District (Bullitt, Shelby and Spencer) – TOSS-UP

The retirement of Republican Sen. Gary Tapp of Shelbyville has opened this seat, which Republicans seem confident they will hold.

But because it’s an open seat between two candidates neither of whom are well-known across all three counties, it starts in the toss-up column.

Both men hail from Shelby County, effectively nullifying any geographic advantage. GOP candidate Paul Hornback, a Shelby County farmer, won his Republican primary fairly comfortably in May. But, as Democrats point out, even the loser in the Democratic primary received more votes than Hornback did. Democrat David Eaton, who narrowly won his May 18 primary, is the Simpsonville city administrator and the former mayor of Shelbyville. But he hasn’t fared well in past legislative races, losing bids for the 58th state House seat 2002 and 2004.

24th District (Campbell and Pendleton) – LIKELY REPUBLICAN HOLD

State Sen. Katie Stine, a Republican from Southgate, has amassed a campaign fund of more than $74,000. She serves as the Senate president pro tem. And, in running for her fourth term in the Senate, she is well-known in a district that favors Republicans.

Her Democratic opponent, Julie Smith-Morrow, is a school board member and vice president of a foodbank.

26th District (Carroll, Henry, Oldham, Trimble and part of Jefferson)– LIKELY REPUBLICAN HOLD

Republican Sen. Ernie Harris of Crestwood is seeking a fifth term in a district that is friendly to Republicans. Harris dispatched with a  primary challenger in May. And he faces Democratic challenger John W. Black in November.

28th District (Bath, Bourbon, Clark, Harrison, Montgomery and Nicholas counties) – LIKELY DEMOCRATIC HOLD

Democratic Sen. R.J. Palmer of Winchester drew a primary challenge and Republican opposition in November. His GOP challenger, Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester doctor, has yet to prove himself as a top-flight candidate. He has run twice for state representative and lost handily both times to Rep. Don Pasley. Palmer, on the other hand, is a strong campaigner.


Republican Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard stunned Democratic leaders when he won the seat in a 2008 special election to replace Daniel Mongiardo, who had just been elected lieutenant governor. This district has traditionally favored Democratic candidates, but Smith — an effective campaigner – soundly defeated Scott Alexander, a fellow Perry County native who was Mongiardo’s pick to succeed him.

This time, though, Smith drew an opponent who hails from Harlan County and comes with a well-known name. Johnny L. Turner served in the state House from 1999 through 2002 before losing to Mongiardo in the 2002 state Senate race. But Turner did all that as a Republican and has only recently switched parties to be a Democrat.

Sen. Mike Reynolds, D-Bowling Green

32nd District (Warren and Butler counties)– TOSS-UP

This race starts by straddling the line between “toss-up” and “leans Democratic hold.”

Sen. Mike Reynolds, a Democrat from Bowling Green, is another fairly new senator facing re-election for the first time. Reynolds, a lawyer, surprised Republicans with his win in a 2008 special election to replace Brett Guthrie after Guthrie was elected to Congress. He and his family have deep roots in the community, and he can raise money. He starts with $36,000 in the bank.

But the district has favored Republicans in the past. And Republican candidate Mike Wilson, the general manager of a Christian radio station in Bowling Green, might benefit as much as any candidate in the state from being on the ballot with U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul, who also lives in Bowling Green. Wilson won a tough Republican primary campaign, which tapped out his fund-raising.

34th District (Madison, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties) – TOSS-UP

The retirement of Senate Democratic Leader Ed Worley of Richmond has created an open seat that both parties have placed atop their priority lists.

Democratic candidate Lee Murphy is president of Chapel Communications, an Internet communications company. Republican candidate Jared Carpenter is a banker. Both are from Madison County. And both won close three-way primary races in May.

Voters in Madison, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties can expect to hear a lot about this race in the coming months.

36th District (Jefferson County) – LIKELY REPUBLICAN HOLD

Republican Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville is expected to win re-election. She amassed nearly $200,000 heading into May. Denton, who has announced her intent to run for Senate president against David Williams, the top-ranking senator for the last decade, faces Democrat Rick Hiles in November.

38th District (Jefferson County) – LEANS REPUBLICAN HOLD

Republican Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville is a tireless campaigner and starts the campaign with $74,750 in the bank. But his Democratic opponent, Marty Meyer, could provide a match in work ethic. Meyer has aggressively campaigned during the spring and starts the fall race with more than $40,000, meaning he starts as one of the most well-funded challengers in the state.


Watch for periodic updates of the outlook throughout the summer and fall.

- Ryan Alessi


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