Top 15 House races to watch - September edition

09/03/2016 09:02 AM

In yet another election cycle Democrats in Kentucky’s state House find their backs against the wall in their attempt to retain majority control in the last Democratically controlled chamber in the southern United States.

There are multiple open seat races this election cycle which are worth paying attention to as potential pick-ups in an unsettled environment. In addition candidates who flipped affiliation from Democrat to Republican have become targets, and Democrats are energized to reclaim the seats their party once controlled.

With the next batch of financial reports still more than a month away here are the races which could decide who is in control of the House of Representatives in the 2017 legislative session.

  • First Tier:

1. 94th District, Open seat:
Angie Hatton, Democrat vs. Frankie Justice, Republican

The eastern portion of the state is in play this election cycle after Republicans have made in-roads in the 2014 and 2015 elections at the state and federal level. Helping the GOP messaging will be Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s words on the coal industry during a CNN town hall.

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 County.

Angie Hatton, the assistant Letcher County attorney, has amassed more than $30,000 in campaign contributions, according to a 60-day post-primary report filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

It will be relatively unknown how that money is spent and how much more is gathered during a majority of the election against former Pikeville Mayor and current City Commissioner Frank Justice II. The next finance report that will be due is a 32-day pre-General election report which is supposed to be turned in to the registry by mid-October.

Justice gathered more than $82,000 according to his post primary report.

Insiders suspect this race, along with most of the top tier races are a toss-up at this point in the Election.

2. 62nd District, Democratic-held seat:
Rep. Chuck Tackett, Democrat vs. Phillip Pratt, Republican

Democrats picked up the seat formerly held by current Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, R-Kentucky, in a special election in where Rep. Chuck Tackett defeated Phillip Pratt by just 253 votes. The GOP was confident heading into the election, which may have impacted their outreach efforts in the district which encompasses part of Scott and all of Owen County.

The Democratic Party spent big during the special election to pick up the seat, the GOP knowns it will cost to compete and have already started running radio ads in the district hoping to soften Tackett, who with only months on the job will likely need to spend to bolster his name id as well.

3. 38th District, Republican-held seat:
Rep. Denny Butler, Republican vs. McKenzie Cantrell, Democrat

For pure storyline you can’t beat the southern Jefferson Co. race between former Democrat turned Republican Rep. Denny Butler who joined the GOP at the end of 2015, and kicked off the near end of Democratic Party rule in the lower chamber.
Many political insiders say this race is personal for House Speaker Greg Stumbo, so look for the House Caucus to donate to his Democratic challenger McKenzie Cantrell, an attorney with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

The southern Jefferson Co. district is far and away Democratic with more than 16,000 registered Democrats and 8,222 registered Republicans, according to registration statistics compiled by the State Board of Elections.

Furthermore, the district went for President Obama in the 2012 election against Mitt Romney, which given the support Obama received in that election should be cause for concern for Butler in another presidential year.

4. 91st District, Democratic-held seat:
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. The district encompasses Breathitt, Estill, Lee, Owsley, and part of Madison counties.

With the tight margin and two Frankfort veterans in the running watch for the race to turn nasty, as the parties dump opposition research to help build momentum.

5. 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 Co. district back in the Democratic column, but he will face Republican Chad McCoy who was endorsed by Floyd early in the primary season.

  • Second Tier:

6. 74th District, Republican-held seat:
James Davis, Democrat vs. Rep. David Hale, Republican

Republican Rep. David Hale of Wellington will have 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.

The Republican Party of Kentucky is already running radio advertisements in the district which encompasses Menifee, Montgomery, and Powell Co.

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

7. 70th District, open seat:
John Sims, Democrat vs. John VanMeter, Republican

The open races present opportunities for the Democratic and Republican parties to add to their roster. 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.

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 in 2014.

The seat is open as Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, leaves office and his post as Majority Whip.

Danny Basil, an attorney, faces Republican nominee Steve Riley, a retired principal of Barren County High School.

The district includes Barren and part of Warren County.

9. 78th District, Democratic-held seat:
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.

Republicans are already running ads in this district which encompasses Harrison, Pendleton and part of Scott Counties.

10. 92nd District, Democratic-held seat:
Rep. John Short, Democrat vs. John Blanton, Republican

The 92nd District race is a new addition to the top ten races to watch this election cycle. 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 County.

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 will likely make Short’s alleged involvement an issue in the election.

Republican nominee John Blanton, a former Kentucky State Police trooper who specialized in drug enforcement, recently told a reporter with the Lexington Herald Leader that he plans on focusing on issues in the race and not the allegations, but look for RPK to get involved later this year.

  • Third Tier:

11. 10th District, Democratic-held seat:
Rep. Dean Schamore, Democrat vs. TW Shortt, Republican

With so many interesting contests this cycle we’ve added a third tier to the list. These are races that have the ability to become competitive down the stretch, but are currently in a holding pattern.

Rep. 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 the GOP nominee, TW Shortt of Radcliffe who is a realtor and city councilman.

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

12. 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.

Republicans feel good about where this race currently sits, and it has taken a dive since our first ranking of the races, but the attacks against Gooch could be particularly brutal as Democrats use dirt gained over 20 years of working with their former caucus mate 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.

13. 49th District, Democratic-held seat:
Rep. Linda Belcher, Democrat vs. Dan Johnson, Republican

First there was a GOP primary for the seat between Bullit Co. Judge Exec. 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 nominee to take on Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher.

Most observers believe Belcher is in a good spot in this race, but if Trump catches fire in Kentucky it could bolster Johnson’s chances.

14. 3rd District, Democratic-held seat:
Rep. Gerald Watkins, Democrat vs. Joni Hogancamp, Republican

In yet another election cycle Democratic lawmaker Gerald Watkins of Paducah is a prime GOP target. The Republicans’ hopes rest on Joni Hogancamp, co-owner of Caring People Services in Paducah.

Watkins, a former commissioner, is philosophically conservative, particularly on social issues which could help blunt the likely connection to the national Democratic Party.

15. 84th District, Democratic-held seat:
Rep. Fitz Steele, Democrat vs. Chris Fugate

Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele, of Hazard, will face a Republican challenger in Chris Fugate in an area of the state that has seen Republicans performing well in recent elections.

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

Both House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Morehead, have challengers this cycle which will force them to stay in their districts and work rather than help other candidates on the ballot.

The contested races also mean Stumbo and Adkins can’t empty their campaign bank accounts into the Democratic Party or caucus’ bank account.

Another area of the state to watch this year are the three Owensboro area House races.

Rep. Jim Glenn, D-Owensboro, in the 13th District has etched out close contest, after close contest in the partial Daviess Co. district.

Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, also seems safe this cycle in his 14th District which encompasses part of Daviess Co. and all of Ohio Co., but changing voting patterns could be an issue.

In the 7th Dist. Rep. Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro, also faces a challenger in a district once controlled by the Democratic Party, but lost in the fallout 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.


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