Top 10 Kentucky state House races to watch

06/12/2016 02:57 PM

With control of the state House at stake Democrats and Republicans are buying bulk in antacids as they plot their strategy to either hold ground or flip the last remaining obstacles in place.

The Kentucky House of Representatives is the lone state legislative chamber in the south that Democrats still control. Republicans want to change that, and have upped their candidate recruitment efforts this cycle in an attempt to get there.

Democrats have handled their House races in recent cycles as largely local races, attempting to keep national generalizations out of the picture, but some tough votes in 2016 and dwindling resources have largely put Democrats on defense this year.

There are multiple open races this cycle, new legislators in place after the March special elections and still more than a dozen other races that have a chance to develop down the stretch. As a starting point, here is the first batch of 10 House races to watch:

1. 38th District, Republican-held seat:
Rep. Denny Butler, Republican, vs. McKenzie Cantrell, Democrat

This southern Jefferson County district is primed to be the hottest contest in the general election. This race is likely personal for House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, as he seeks retribution against the former Democratic incumbent Rep. Denny Butler who joined the Republican Party at the end of 2015.

Butler, R-Louisville, faces McKenzie Cantrell who is an attorney with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. Cantrell bested Metro Councilman Dan Johnson in the Democratic primary with 66 percent of the vote.

The south Louisville district is a Democratic district, but Butler’s family roots in the district and strong monetary backing from the GOP will make this one a real contest.

2. 91st District, Democratic-held seat
Rep. Cluster Howard, Democrat, vs. former Rep. Toby Herald, Republican

Money won’t play as much of a role in this Election contest, but the margins between the two could be tight.

Current Rep. Cluster Howard, D-Jackson, defeated former Rep. Toby Herald, R-Beattyville, by just 14 votes in 2014. The margins make the area which encompasses Breathitt, Estill, Lee, Owsley, and part of Madison counties a true swing district.

3. 12th District, Republican-held seat
Rep. Jim Gooch, Republican, vs. Jim Townsend, Democrat

Republicans will have to defend this western Kentucky District as Democrats try and re-take the seat held by Gooch, who flipped from Democrat to Republican at the end of 2015 in an attempt to help the GOP take majority control of the lower chamber.

Challenging Gooch is Webster Co. 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.

The attacks against Gooch could be particularly brutal as Democrats use dirt gained over 20 years of working with Gooch in the General Assembly.

It was the Republican Party two years ago who targeted Gooch in his re-election bid attempting to tie him to terrorism, and his previous GOP challenger brought the lawmaker’s remarks about a pair of women’s underwear back to the surfaced in a television ad in that campaign.

4. 94th District, OPEN seat
Angie Hatton, Democrat vs. Frankie Justice, Republican

With Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, leaving the General Assembly at the end of this year the Democratic Party will have to defend this eastern Kentucky seat against a Republican Party making in-roads into the region in the last couple of statewide elections.

Angie Hatton, the assistant Letcher County attorney, was the top vote-getter for the Democratic Party in the primary with 60 percent of the vote and a total of 3,136 ballots cast in her favor.

Republican have a well-known political insider in former Pikeville Mayor and current City Commissioner Frank Justice II running for the open seat. Justice gained 40 percent of the vote in a four-way Republican primary, winning with 963 votes.

This district contains part of Letcher and all of Pike County.

5. 62nd District, Democratic-held seat
Rep. Chuck Tackett, Democrat vs. Phillip Pratt, Republican

Democrats barely scooped up this district which encompasses part of Fayette, part of Scott and all of Owen County, in the March round of special elections.

Rep. Chuck Tackett, D-Georgetown, defeated Republican Phillip Pratt by 253 votes or 3.8 percent in the special election. Now Tackett and Pratt will face-off once again on Nov. 8.

Democrats spent big in the special election to gain the seat, out-spending the Republicans, but with numerous races and plenty of seats to defend the Democrats will need money again to retain the seat.

6. 3rd District, Democratic-held
Rep. Gerald Watkins, Democrat, vs. Joni Hogancamp, Republican

With the Republicans’ success in western Kentucky in recent years, Democratic lawmaker Gerald Watkins is a prime GOP target. The Republicans’ hopes rest on Joni Hogancamp, co-owner of Caring People Services in Paducah.

Watkins, a former Paducah commissioner, is philosophically conservative, particularly on social issues.

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

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

Miles rose to power after winning the seat in a 2013 special election, after former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, resigned amid a sexual harassment investigation. The Owensboro Republican defended the seat in 2014, winning re-election with a 1,000-vote margin, and blistering her opponent in that race in fundraising.

The district covers all of Daviess, Union, and part of Henderson County.

8. 23rd District, OPEN seat
Danny Basil, Democrat, vs. Steve Riley, Republican

Republicans like their chances to pick up this open seat that has been under Democratic control. The district had been targeted by the GOP when Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, was represented the area that encompasses Barren and part of Warren County.

Attorney Danny Basil won the Democratic nomination with 64.5 percent of the vote. He will face Republican nominee Steve Riley who won the GOP primary convincingly with 71 percent of the vote. Riley is a retired principal of Barren County High School.

9. 99th District, Democratic-held seat
Rep. Rocky Adkins, Democrat vs. Wendy Fletcher, Republican

House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Morehead, could have the first real challenge of his political career on his hands as he will try 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, but Adkins has a mountain of cash on hand for the challenge. The Democratic leader’s pre-primary report showed more than $285,000 in campaign cash.

Fletcher entered her GOP primary with less than $6,000 in cash-on-hand in her campaign piggy bank, according to a report filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, but even if she can’t match Adkins in fundraising the question will be how much will Democrats spend to ensure their legislative leaders are protected?

And with Adkins, Speaker Stumbo, Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, and Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly facing challengers — will they have the time to help rank-and-file members with their re-elections? Not to mention the pick-ups they’re attempting.

10. 20th District, Democratic-held seat
Rep. Jody Richards, Democrat, vs. Melinda Hill, Republican

Speaking of Democratic legislative leaders, Republicans are keeping their target on Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green. 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. Hill has called on a halt to bringing Syrian refugees to Bowling Green.

The district includes the city of Bowling Green and several precincts in Warren County.

Honorable Mention:

  • 70th House: There will be a lot of attention on open seat races this cycle. One of the races both parties will be spending time and money is in the 70th House District, which opens as Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, retires from the legislature.

Democratic candidate John Sims Jr. will face-off against Republican candidate John VanMeter in the district which encompasses Bracken, Fleming, Mason, and Robertson Counties.

  • 95th House: After a narrow victory in the Democratic primary House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Pikeville, will have to defend his seat against Republican Larry Brown in the general election.

Stumbo will likely be hit for his previous support of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and her recent comments on the coal industry. Look for Stumbo’s split residency to come up in this race as well.

There are a handful of other races which could develop into top-tier contests this Election cycle that Pure Politics will be following in the months leading up to Nov. 8. The challenge for the Democratic and Republican Party will be choosing which races in which to spend their limited dollars.

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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