Still in play: Two dozen races that will decide control of state House

11/06/2016 08:00 AM

In a mere two days Kentuckians will cast their ballots in contested legislative races to decide who represents them in Frankfort, and thus, which party will be in the majority come 2017.

Currently, the House of Representatives is held by the Democratic Party, which heads into Election Day with 53 members to Republicans’ 47. Democrats have held the lower chamber since 1921 and have withstood a GOP onslaught in recent years to retain control.

The path to pick up a majority will run through seven open seat races, adding up to more than two dozen contested races which will essentially decide the fate of the House.

Generally, near the end of an election, analysts are able to decide which way a race is leaning, but in this year’s election, many races have stayed competitive as new close contests have popped up.

The Republican Party has spent big to try and wrestle control of the lower legislative chamber, the last democratically controlled outpost in the Southern United States, away from Democrats. Even with the GOP spending, it could still be possible some Democrats, through outside groups, will outspend Republicans in an attempt to keep control.

Here are the races Pure Politics will be watching come Tuesday. The latest round up is not ranked individually, but by tier. Because of the number of races, the individual contests are not spelled out in detail, but previous reporting on the races are linked.

  • First Tier:

7th District, Republican
Rep. Suzanne Miles, Republican, vs. Joy Gray, Democrat

Rep. Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro, is defending her primarily rural against Democratic candidate Joy Gray. Gray is an educator at Daviess County Public Schools and a 2015 graduate of Democratic training group Emerge Kentucky.

Outside spending is playing a role in this race, as it is in multiple other contested races.

8th District, Democratic
Rep. Jeff Taylor, Democrat, vs. Walker Thomas, Republican

Rep. Jeff Taylor won the seat in the March 8 special election by the widest margin of all four special election contests this year, a nearly 19-point win over Republican nominee Walker Thomas, of Hopkinsville.

Taylor won 3,286 votes to Thomas’ 2,261, and he benefited from a last-minute robo-call by President Barack Obama.

Outside groups on both sides of the aisle are spending in this race, which is controlled by Democrats.

12th District, Republican
Rep. Jim Gooch, Republican, vs. Jim Townsend, Democrat

Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Jim Gooch is defending his western Kentucky seat against Webster County Judge-Executive Jim Townsend, who has served in the position since 1991. The district is divided between part of Daviess, part of Hopkins, and all of McLean and Webster counties.

Democrats have tried to soften Gooch, using a tactic the GOP attempted in 2014 against the 22-year incumbent.

14th District, Democratic
Rep. Tommy Thompson, Democrat, vs. Matt Castlen, Republican

Fourteen-year incumbent Rep. Tommy Thompson, of Owensboro, is being challenged by political newcomer in Republican Matt Castlen, who owns and runs Castlen Steel in Owensboro. This district, once thought safely Democratic, has been the focus of spending from both parties late in the campaign.

16th District, Democratic
Rep. Martha Jane King, Democrat, vs. Jason Petrie, Republican

Rep. Martha Jane King is facing a last-minute ad blitz in her southwestern Kentucky district which includes Logan, Todd and part of Warren counties.

For the second election in a row she’s facing Jason Petrie. When the two candidates clashed in 2014, Petrie, then registered as independent, lost by more than 2,000 votes.

This cycle, Petrie is registered as a Republican, and not only is he benefiting from the Republican Party of Kentucky’s involvement, but also from outside groups.

King has been targeted by some of the most brutal attacks from Republican groups this election.

23rd District, open seat
Danny Basil, Democrat, vs. Steve Riley, Republican

Democratic candidate Danny Basil, an attorney, faces Republican Steve Riley, a retired principal of Barren County High School. The seat is open as Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, leaves office and his post as majority whip. The district includes Barren and part of Warren counties.

Pure Politics spoke to both candidates about their vision for the district last week.

24th District, Democratic
Rep. Terry Mills, Democrat vs. Brandon Reed, Republican

Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon, has held this Democratic district since 2010 and seemed like a safe bet for Democrats. A shift in polling likely brought outside support for Reed from an outside GOP super PAC.

A Democratic super PAC also rushed into the district in the final week in an effort to prop up Mills in the district which encompasses Green, Larue and Marion counties.

38th District, Republican
Rep. Denny Butler, Republican vs. McKenzie Cantrell, Democrat

This race may be the mostly hotly contested of all the races moving this cycle.

The southern Jefferson County race pits former Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Denny Butler, who joined the GOP at the end of 2015, against Democratic challenger McKenzie Cantrell, an attorney with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

The district went for President Obama in the 2008 and the 2012 election, which given the support Obama received in 2012 election could be cause for concern for Butler in another presidential year.

The candidates recently faced one another in a debate hosted by Pure Politics.

62nd District, Democratic
Rep. Chuck Tackett, Democrat vs. Phillip Pratt, Republican

Rep. Chuck Tackett, D-Georgetown, defeated Republican Phillip Pratt by 253 votes, or 3.8 percent, in the special election. Tackett and Pratt will face-off once again on Tuesday and Democratic and Republican groups have been focused on the district for months.

74th District, Republican
James Davis, Democrat vs. Rep. David Hale, Republican

Republican Rep. David Hale, of Wellington, is attempting to defend his seat after one term in office. Hale knocked off former Democratic Rep. Richard Henderson in the 2014 election cycle thanks in part to a concerted effort to tie Democrats to President Obama. Democrats are targeting the GOP lawmaker with a mailer casting Hale as a crook.

Hoping to reclaim the district for Democrats is James Davis, an attorney from Mount Sterling.

84th District, Democratic
Rep. Fitz Steele, Democrat vs. Chris Fugate, Republican

Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele, of Hazard, faces GOP challenger Chris Fugate in an area of the state that has seen Republicans performing well in recent elections. Democrats have been attempting to protect Steele as eastern Kentucky districts voice their frustrations with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the ballot box.

Democratic House leaders named Steele as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee in December of 2015 as other Democrats defected from the party.

The district includes all of Perry County and part of Harlan County.

91st District, Democratic
Rep. Cluster Howard, Democrat vs. former Rep. Toby Herald, Republican

The margin of victory in the 2014 race has the attention of both political parties as current Rep. Cluster Howard defeated former Rep. Toby Herald by just 14 votes. This race has featured a blistering attack against the Democratic incumbent, but Democrats have fired back with their own ads.

The district encompasses Breathitt, Estill, Lee, Owsley and part of Madison counties.

92nd District, Democratic
Rep. John Short, Democrat vs. John Blanton, Republican

Rep. John Short, D-Mallie, has held the district since 2011, but recent events have insiders watching what transpires in the district which includes Knott, Magoffin and part of Pike counties.

Short was mentioned in court filings in an ongoing case as a beneficiary of a vote-buying scheme in Magoffin County during the 2012 Democratic primary for state representative. The allegations have the attention of the parties who have made Short’s alleged involvement an issue in the election.

Republican nominee John Blanton, a former Kentucky State Police trooper who specialized in drug enforcement, is vying to replace Short.

94th District, open seat
Angie Hatton, Democrat vs. Frankie Justice, Republican

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, is leaving the General Assembly, but not politics for good. Combs’ departure at the end of this year is putting the Democratic Party on defense in this eastern Kentucky district which contains part of Pike and all of Letcher counties.

Angie Hatton, the assistant Letcher County attorney, is trying to hold the seat for Democrats. Republicans have a well-known political insider in former Pikeville Mayor and current City Commissioner Frankie Justice competing for the open seat.

95th District, Democratic
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Democrat, vs. Larry Brown, Republican

House Speaker Greg Stumbo is in the fight of his legislative career in the Eastern Kentucky district. Stumbo squeaked out a victory in the Democratic primary.

Outside groups have been dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads in the area, so many ads in fact, that some groups have had to take their spots to television stations in West Virginia, in an attempt to reach voters in the Floyd and partial Pike County district.

  • Second Tier

10th District, Democratic
Rep. Dean Schamore, Democrat vs. TW Shortt, Republican

Rep. Dean Schamore, of Hardinsburg, made his way into the lower chamber during the 2014 election cycle picking up the then open seat. This year he faces his first challenger in Republican TW Shortt, of Radcliffe, who is a realtor and city councilman.

The 10th district encompasses Breckinridge, Hancock and part of Hardin counties.

13th District, Democratic
Rep. Jim Glenn, Democrat vs. D.J. Johnson, Republican

Rep. Jim Glenn, D-Owensboro, has etched out close contest after close contest in the partial Daviess County district. There has not been a focus on this race this cycle, but it will be interesting to see how close the votes are with several other highly contested Owensboro races this year.

33rd District, Republican
Jason Nemes, Republican vs. Rob Walker, Democrat

Republican Jason Nemes handily defeated GOP Rep. Ron Crimm in the May primary race and seemed assured to coast to victory in the General Election in this heavily Republican district.

However, Democratic candidate Rob Walker has been buoyed by support from a Democratic super PAC, as first reported by Pure Politics.

39th District, Democratic
Rep. Russ Meyer, Democrat vs. Robert Gullette, Republican

This central Kentucky district seems unlikely to change hands, but there is a battle brewing in the area between Democratic Rep. Russ Meyer, of Nicholasville, and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

Meyer accused Bevin of squashing a road project in his district after the Democratic lawmaker declined to join the Republican Party last year.

49th District, Democratic
Rep. Linda Belcher, Democrat vs. Dan Johnson, Republican

First there was a GOP primary for the seat between Bullit County Judge-Executive Melanie Roberts and Jennifer Stepp — but Roberts dropped out of the race and Stepp was disqualified for the post in July after her residency was challenged.

That left a vacancy for the GOP, the Republican Party held a nominating meeting which Dan Johnson won making him the Republican nominee to take on Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher.

Johnson has made headlines of late for racist social media postings and being cited by Fish and Wildlife for keeping a pet alligator, which he took on motorcycle rides.

50th District, open seat
James DeWeese, Democrat vs. Chad McCoy, Republican

This is an open seat race created after Republican Rep. David Floyd, of Bardstown, decided to retire from the House. The GOP has controlled the district since Floyd won his first race in 2004, before the race the Democratic Party controlled the district.

Democrat James DeWeese is hoping to put the Nelson County district back in the Democratic column, but he will face Republican Chad McCoy who was endorsed by Floyd early in the primary season.

70th District, open seat
John Sims, Democrat vs. John VanMeter, Republican

The 70th district has been in control of the Democratic Party, but the GOP has money and the winds of change at their backs in this election year.

Democratic candidate John Sims Jr. faces off against GOP candidate John VanMeter in the district which includes Bracken, Fleming, Mason and Robertson counties.

78th District, Democratic
Rep. Tom McKee, Democrat vs. Mark Hart, Republican

The GOP continues to hammer away in this longtime Democratically held district as Rep. Tom McKee, of Cynthiana, once again faces Republican and former Falmouth Mayor Mark Hart.

Hart and McKee last competed against one another in 2014, when McKee, who has represented the district since 1997, defeated Hart by 969 votes out of 12,069 ballots cast.

  • Third Tier

20th District, Democratic
House Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, Democrat, vs. Melinda Hill, Republican

Republicans are keeping their target on House Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, this cycle. Richards will face Bowling Green City Commissioner Melinda Hill in the re-election for the seat he has held since 1976.

Hill is a recruited candidate and already seeking to position herself to scoop up votes in the presidential election year. The district includes the city of Bowling Green and several precincts in Warren County

99th District, Democratic
Rep. Rocky Adkins, Democrat vs. Wendy Fletcher, Republican

House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Morehead, is attempting to fend off Wendy Fletcher, a nurse practitioner who serves as president of the Kentucky Coalition of Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Midwives.

Fletcher is a Kentucky Strong GOP women’s group candidate, who is facing off against the longtime Democratic lawmaker who has held the seat since 1987.

Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics available exclusively on Spectrum News. Pure Politics is the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like his coverage of the backlog of DNA rape kits waiting to be tested in Kentucky. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Pure Politics airs weeknight at 7 and 11:30 on Spectrum News or anytime with Spectrum On Demand.Follow Nick on Twitter @NStorm_Politics. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@charter.com.

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