The first 10: Most interesting (primary) races to watch

02/07/2016 01:08 PM

For yet another election cycle the collective minds at Democratic and Republican Party headquarters will be spent trying to outwit and outlast their opponents for control of the state House.

Outside of the March 8 special elections, parties will be watching the May 17 primary to see how the races unfold so they can determine which recruited candidates will emerge from the primaries, the flow of capital in the general election and which incumbents can outlast internal challengers.

The roster of fall general election races will include more than a dozen battles for open seats thanks to position switches and retirements, but before parties can start actively participating in the battle royale, some opponents will have to outlast an internal civil war of sorts.

As a pre-general-election starting point, here is the first batch of the 10 most intriguing primary battles to watch, with priority weighted to House contests as Democrats defend their 50-46 majority.

1. 38th House District (Democratic primary)
McKenzie Cantrell vs. Dan Johnson — both from Louisville.

This southern Jefferson County district features two segments of the Democratic Party fighting it out in a Democratic district to win the right to face former Democratic Representative Denny Butler, who switched party alliances to the GOP in November.

Cantrell is an attorney with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. In her work as a lawyer she advocates for middle class families, targeting individuals with wage and overtime violations and other employment law claims. She is also a member of Emerge Kentucky, the Democratic women’s group which teaches candidates to run for office. If the 2014 Emerge Kentucky class is an indicator of fundraising prowess, Cantrell will have no problems finding capital in a general election campaign.

The Democratic establishment candidate is Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson, who was joined by a bevy of high-ranking Democratic officials when he filed his paperwork to run for office.

Johnson’s troubled history could be a tough issue for him in the primary, but it will likely be an issue if he moves on to the fall campaign against Butler, who faces no Republican challengers in the primary. About 30 percent of Johnson’s old council district is included inside the boundaries of this contest, so he will have to find a way to introduce himself to many voters in the district.

2. 33rd House District (Republican primary)
Rep. Ron Crimm vs. Jason Nemes vs. Andrew Schachtner — all from Louisville.

The district encompassing northeastern Jefferson County and southern Oldham County has been held by Crimm for the 19 years, but he’ll be facing a tough shoe-leather campaigner in Nemes, a Louisville attorney who knows his way around state and local politics and comes from a sophisticated campaign family.

Nemes is the son of former state Representative and current Deputy Secretary of the Labor Cabinet Mike Nemes. The younger Nemes is working on his ninth straight week of walking the district.

Crimm will turn 81 just before the primary, which could play a role in how voters view his performance. He will also have to deal with the number of years in Frankfort, which in the current anti-incumbency environment could become a deterrent.

That thinking could be complicated by the addition of another GOP challenger. Tea party candidate Schachtner changes the dynamics of the race, making this contest muddier for voters and potentially causing a split in the anti-incumbency vote.

Even though he is young, Schachtner has a history in local and state politics. In 2012 he served as the president of the Louisville tea party. He is also the former chair of the Louisville Young Republicans, and in 2014, Schachtner worked on Gov. Matt Bevin’s U.S. Senate primary against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

3. 94th House District (Democratic and Republican primaries) (OPEN SEAT)
Ira Edsel Branham, of Pikeville, vs. Angie Hatton, of Whitesburg, vs. Joel Thornbury, of Pikeville, in the Democratic primary.

Wesley Doughman, of Isom, vs. Colin Fultz, of Thornton, vs. Frankie Justice, of Pikeville, vs Charles “Phillip” Wheeler, of Pikeville, in the Republican primary.

With Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, announcing her retirement, Democrats are forced to fight in yet another open seat to maintain their shrinking majority in the state House.

But with a three-way primary for the Democratic and a four-way Republican nomination, things could get messy.

Branham is trying to reclaim the seat he held for two terms, representing the 94th House District from 1998 until 2002. Now the Pikeville attorney will face off against Thornbury, a third generation pharmacist, who is a board member of the Green Meadow Country Club and a Pike County Chamber of Commerce board member.

Hatton, the assistant Lecther County attorney, will also be vying for recognition in the race with the two already well-known candidates. Insiders from the area say that the Letcher County ties will benefit Hatton if she works hard enough.

Combs didn’t give much notice of her impending departure, but the GOP was able to attract a big-name candidate in former Pikeville Mayor and current City Commissioner Frank Justice II. Even though Justice is well known, he will have to prove himself in the primary election if he intends to move on to the general. Insiders say that Phillip Wheeler, a Pikeville trial attorney who specializes in personal injury law, will show stark contrast with Justice. Wheeler’s father is a well-known ophthalmologist in the district.

Fultz is lesser known in political circles, but the Whitesburg resident did draw headlines last year when Kentucky Mist Moonshine, which he co-owns, was threatened by the University of Kentucky. The threat came after the distilling company pursued a federal trademark registration which included the word Kentucky. Doughman is an unknown candidate and had filed two weeks prior to Combs’ surprise announcement.

With decades of Democratic voting patterns in the district there are fewer registered Republicans to cast their ballots in a GOP primary, and with the GOP holding their own presidential caucus turnout could be lower than the already meager primary turnouts, meaning this race could be a nail-biter on Election Day.

4. 41st House District (Democratic primary)
Rep. Tom Riner vs. Attica Scott vs. Phillip “Phil” Baker

This Democratic primary will essentially choose the next state representative for the people in the western Louisville district. The seat is held by Rep. Tom Riner, a pastor who has held the seat for the last 34 years.

Riner has come under fire from Democrats as he strays from the majority.

During the start of the 2016 legislative session he took to the House floor to stand up for House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover as the GOP leader complained of unfair treatment from the majority party. In 2013, Riner also played a role in the support of LRC staffers coming forward against instances of sexual harassment from former Democratic lawmaker John Arnold.

During the 2015 campaign season, Riner also played an instrumental role in helping Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis find legal counsel as she opted to stop delivering marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court’s order legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation.

This district is minority majority, worth noting as Riner will face two African-American Democratic challengers in a district that includes part of the area.

Former Louisville Metro Councilwoman Attica Scott, who lost her 2014 re-election to the council, will be vying for the seat. Scott advocates for affordable housing, raising the minimum wage, restoration of voting rights and against right-to-work legislation. Scott traveled to Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 to take part in peaceful protests after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police.

In addition to Scott, Phil Baker is making his first run for the state House. Baker is a local insurance agent and former board member of the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union. Baker also has ties to the Louisville Metro Council as one of 10 applications who sought to fill the late George Unseld’s position. Baker is the grandson of Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame Inductee Rev. Henry Baker Sr., to whom he credits his commitment and love of service for his community, according to a press release.

5. 71st House District (Republican primary)
Rep. Jonathan Shell vs. Buzz Carloftis

One of the architects behind a hefty group of Republicans filing against Democratic incumbents has drawn his own GOP challenger in the district which includes Garrard, Rockcastle and part of Madison counties.

Shell, chairman of the House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee, drew opposition from Carloftis, former Rockcastle County judge-executive.

Shell, a tobacco farmer from Lancaster, will have to make his case for a third term in what could amount to a geographic contest. However, Shell also has ties to the Rockcastle portion of his district — his grandfather was raised in the region and he still has family ties to the area.

In 2010, Carloftis barely won re-election against the current Judge-Executive Doug Bishop by less than 200 votes, but by the 2014 election Bishop was able to best the Livingston Republican in the primary election, though Carloftis then ran as a write-in candidate in the general election, where he was bested yet again.

This race could be an interesting one with two known entities battling it out, but observers point to Shell’s tenacity. Still, if the incumbent stays busy at home fending off his right flank, some insiders wonder how that will affect the bevy of candidates the GOP has recruited to take on Democratic challengers in the fall.

6. 23rd House District (Democratic and Republican primaries) (OPEN)
Danny Basil vs. Joe Trigg in the Democratic primary.

Steve Riley vs. Freddie Joe Wilkerson in the Republican primary.

With the announcement of his retirement just before the filing deadline, Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, fired the starting gun on a run-off in both the Democratic and Republican primaries to fill the seat in this district that includes all of Barren County and part of Warren County in south-central Kentucky.

Bell is backing 57-year-old Glasgow City Councilman Joe Trigg, according to House Speaker Greg Stumbo. Trigg is a veteran, whom Stumbo told to prepare for another battle. He will face attorney Danny Basil for the Democratic nomination.

Meanwhile, the GOP is confident in their candidates with Steve Riley, a retired principal of Barren County High School, and Wilkerson, who is retired from the Kentucky Army National Guard as well as an ROTC instructor at BCHS, according to the Glasgow Daily Times.

Riley and Wilkerson had filed for the seat well before Bell announced he would not be seeking another term.

The district has become a target for the GOP to flip in recent election cycles.

7. 31st Senate District (Democratic primary)
Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones vs. Glenn Martin Hammond

In the 31st Senate District, which encompasses Elliott, Lawrence, Martin, Morgan and Pike counties, the two Democratic candidates could be holding the most interesting Senate primary of the campaign.

If history is an indicator, things could turn messy, if not nasty, in the race.

Boiled down to it’s finer points, this could be a race that comes down to outsider campaign messaging and pro- and anti-Utility Management Group dynamics. The Pikeville-based UMG gets its revenue from local government, operating sewer and water services in Pike County.

Jones, an Pikeville attory, will likely hold a fundraising edge in the winner-take-all primary. But after 15 years in office, he will have to defend his record as attorney Hammond makes his case for the voters of the district.

Hammond is expected to focus on Jones’ time in Frankfort as a detriment, identifying Jones as a career politician who has dueling interests split between backing statewide Democrats and helping his district. Jones will also find himself under fire for his support and legal work for UMG, which will likely become an issue as the Mountain Water District increases rates on water and sewer services.

In contrast, Hammond may offer himself as a servant of the people with only their interests in mind. Hammond has never held public office, and in a year of the outsider that could be a major factor.

Redistricting will also play a role in the race as Jones will be running in a contested primary for the first time in several of the counties. The only thing keeping this race lower on this list is the GOP supermajority in the Senate, which virtually ensures that Democratic candidates will be unable to pass broad policy objectives in the chamber.

8. 69th House District (Republican primary)
Rep. Adam Koenig vs. Danny Seifried

Unless an independent candidate files for the district, which is comprised of part of Boone and Kenton counties, Republican voters in the May primary will decide their next representative.

Koenig, of Erlanger, has held the seat since 2007 and will have to fend off a young political newcomer in Seifried, who has indirect ties to Gov. Matt Bevin.

Seifried’s brother, Matthew Seifried, worked on Bevin’s gubernatorial campaign as a scheduler, and he helped his brother in the primary race. The 23-year-old Danny Seifried, of Florence, currently sits on the board of Notre Dame Urban Education Center, a non-profit organization that acts as an after-school program for inner-city children in Covington. He is also a market analyst for Nielsen.

It’s unlikely that Seifried will have the ability to raise the amount of cash he will need to compete in the primary election with a Frankfort veteran, but this is another race where changing political climates could come into play.

9. 33rd Senate District (Democratic primary)
Sen. Gerald Neal vs. Charles Booker vs. Joan “Toni” Stringer

In Louisville’s western Senate district, the 25-year-incumbent Neal is facing two Democratic primary opponents, one his former aide.

Booker and Stringer represent what some see as a growing frustration with Neal in the district. Neal is expected to focus his campaign on the work he has done in his quarter-century in office.

Booker could pose a strategic challenge to Neal. The two have worked closely, with Booker serving as Neal’s legislative aide and campaign advisor and now calling for a new vision for the district. In 2014, Booker garnered his own headlines when he was fired from the Legislative Research Commission after appearing in an online ad for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes about the struggles in Louisville’s west end.

Stringer, a former district court judge, will be campaigning on the change message against Neal. With years in the public eye, her candidacy can’t be discounted.

There is also a Republican primary in the district featuring Shenita Rickman and John Yuen.

10. 91st House District (Republican primary)
Randall S. Christopher vs. Toby Herald

Rounding out the list is the return of the former state Rep. Herald, of Beattyville, who is seeking a return to Frankfort after losing the seat in a 14-vote loss to current Rep. Cluster Howard, D-Jackson. His return trip to the general election may not be an easy one though, as he faces what many observers say is a legitimate candidate in Christopher, of Irvine.

Christopher is the former interim Superintendent of Estill County Schools and co-owner of Anglers Outpost & Marine. With the House up for grabs this year, the GOP will have to find the right candidate to retake the seat which they know is winnable.

The 91st district encompasses Breathitt, Eastill, Lee, Owsley, and part of Madison counties.

Honorable mention

With a slew of contested primaries this year and, as always interesting side stories and battle grounds, no list will be perfect. As such this list is meant to serve as an on-its-face look at the primaries before they’re fully developed.

However, there are several other honorable mentions which should also be watched as the primary election season comes into sharper focus, including:

95th House District (Democratic) — As statewide Democrats try to figure out how to hold onto the state House, House Speaker Greg Stumbo will have to parry off Jimmy Rose in a Democratic primary. This one could be interesting as Stumbo splits his time between Frankfort, Lexington and Prestonsburg. Stumbo has been attacked at home recently with a billboard going up at a major thoroughfare in Prestonsburg last year declaring, “Keep the statue, lose the speaker” in reference to Stumbo’s call for the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue from the Capitol Rotunda in 2015.

99th House District (Republican) — Many GOP observers are excited about Wendy Fletcher, a nurse practitioner who serves as president of the Kentucky Coalition of Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Midwives, in this district currently held by House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins.

But before Fletcher, a Kentucky Strong GOP women’s group candidate, can challenge the longtime incumbent she will have to take on Randy Smith, a Clearfield pastor with ties to the Kim Davis controversy.

70th House District (Republican) (OPEN) — The GOP primary to replace Democratic Rep. Mike Denham features a three-way race. Republicans Robert Boone, of Maysville; James Johnson, of Brooksville; and John VanMeter, of Maysville, will vie for the for the chance to pick up the seat which has been under Democratic control for more than a decade. The district is comprised of all of Bracken, Fleming, Mason and Robertson counties.

15th Senate District (Republican) (OPEN) — Four qualified GOP candidates in Rick Girdler, of Somerset; Michael Keck, of Science Hill; Don Moss, of Somerset; and Joshua Nichols, of Somerset, have already been duking it out for the open seat. The district encompasses Boyle, Lincoln and Pulaski counties.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Crimm’s time in the legislature — he’s been in office 19 years.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, 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 the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or



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