UPDATED: Democrats win three of four special elections, pushing majority to 53-47

03/08/2016 05:51 PM

UPDATED Democrats will keep their majority in Kentucky’s House of Representatives and their status as the lone Democratic-held legislative body in the South intact after the party won three of four special elections on Tuesday.

Democrats held two districts that were under Democratic control and picked up a district previously represented by the GOP in the four special contests, giving them a 53-47 majority in the lower chamber.

“Kentuckians have spoken, and this is a repudiation of Gov. Bevin’s efforts to dismantle public education and healthcare,” Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Sannie Overly, who also chairs the House Democratic caucus, said in a statement. “Trying to dismantle Kynect, which has helped more than half a million Kentuckians obtain health insurance, is a perfect example of the bad decisions Bevin is making that will hurt the people of the Commonwealth.

“These Democrats won because they are all good leaders — and they will serve Kentucky well. Tonight is not just a victory for them, but it is a victory for every Kentuckian.”

Democratic Rep.-elect Jeffery Taylor won his race in the 8th House District by the widest margin, a nearly 19-point win over Republican nominee Walker Thomas, of Hopkinsville.

Taylor won 3,286 votes to Thomas’s 2,261, and he benefited from a last-minute robo-call by a familiar Republican foil in Kentucky elections: President Barack Obama.

CNHI News reported Tuesday that the president’s calls made the rounds Monday in support of Taylor, primarily in African-American precincts in Christian and Todd counties.

Republicans won the 54th House District by the second-largest margin as Republican Rep.-elect Daniel Elliott beat Democrat Bill Noelker, of Danville, by nearly 17 points, followed by Democratic Rep.-elect Lew Nicholls’s nearly 15 percent victory over Republican Greenup County Commissioner Tony Quillen in the 98th House District.

Democratic Rep.-elect Chuck Tackett posted the narrowest win on Tuesday, taking the 62nd House District by 253 votes or 3.8 percent over Republican Phillip Pratt, of Georgetown.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, in an interview with KET’s Renee Shaw Tuesday night, said he was “disappointed” with Tuesday’s results and that his caucus envisioned taking “two steps forward, and I think we took one step forward today.”

“We came up short in doing that, but our guys are focused on moving forward to November, and the things is, we now have more members than we’ve had since 1921,” said Hoover, R-Jamestown. “We have more members than we had last year. The Democrats have still fewer members than they had last year, so that’s all positive.”

While Hoover said he was pleased with Republican campaign efforts, he said his party faced a registration disadvantage. Democrats held a registration lead in three of the four districts that were up for grabs Tuesday — 16,316 to 8,320 Republicans in the 8th House District, 18,233 to 11,450 in the 98th and 18,206 to 13,280 in the 62nd — and the GOP held a 16,453 to 13,588 registration edge in the 54th House District.

Democratic candidates also received a financial boost from their party, according to the latest Kentucky Registry of Election Finance filings. The House Democratic Caucus Campaign Committee distributed $114,000 among their nominees, and the KDP chipped in another $10,000 each, the candidates’ 15-day, pre-election KREF filings show.

Despite losing three of the four special election races, the Republican Party of Kentucky says they’re now one seat closer to taking control, a reference to the 54-46 Democratic majority in the chamber last fall. Along with Gov. Matt Bevin’s appointment of two House Democrats to open positions elsewhere, Reps. Denny Butler and Jim Gooch joined the GOP caucus after Bevin won office.

“With Republican candidates running in 91 House districts and the Democrats tied to the Obama-Clinton agenda, I am confident we will take the majority and turn Kentucky in a new direction in November,” RPK Chairman Mac Brown said in a statement.

The first-year governor struck a similar chord in his statement, saying he also looked forward to this fall’s election cycle. Bevin, too, predicted defeat for House Democrats with the number of GOP challengers on the ballot this year and either Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at the top of the Democratic ticket.

“While we would have loved to have won all four seats tonight, we are delighted that we are another step closer to a new majority,” Bevin said in a statement. “Tomorrow, there will be one more conservative vote in the House than we had in November.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo said in a statement that Democratic victories on Tuesday showed voters’ support of the majority party’s agenda, “especially protecting public education and making kids work ready for the 21st century.”

That’s a point echoed by Elizabeth Cantrell, who managed Nicholls’s campaign, and Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe.

Both highlighted higher education — and Bevin’s proposed budget cuts to postsecondary institutions in his biennial spending proposal — as one effective message that Democratic candidates have campaigned on or should campaign on to energize their supporters.

Cantrell said the former circuit judge discussed the governor’s proposed cuts to higher education “a lot from the perspective of what he believes.”

“But then it’s also something that he heard a lot and he heard when he was out meeting with voters,” she said in a phone interview with Pure Politics. “People were concerned, deeply concerned with the cuts to higher education, to education, our family resource and youth service centers here in his district that play such a vital role to families in Greenup and Boyd counties.”

Briscoe called higher education, particularly affordability and debt, “one of the most harmful issues that we have right now both in Kentucky and the United States.”

“It’s getting to the point where some students are concerned about trying to get a college education because they don’t want to run up $60, $70,000 worth of debt that they have to pay off over 20 years, and the governor’s budget is going to force universities in this state to raise tuition, which will increase student debt,” he said in a phone interview with Pure Politics.

“I think the Democrats can stake out a ground that they’re going to restore the money to the universities and not raise tuition, and that will help people who are concerned about having enormous debt.”

Another less-publicized aspect of Bevin’s budget that played well in the 98th House District was the provision repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, Cantrell said.

“We have a lot of proud electricians and carpenters and a very skilled workforce here in the 98th district, and certainly prevailing wage is something that’s very important to them,” she said, noting that the decision by West Virginia’s legislature to enact a right-to-work law over the veto of Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in February was also on the minds of district voters along the border.

The 98th House District race yielded the highest voter turnout among Tuesday’s four special elections at 25.8 percent.

Nicholls, of Greenup, and Quillen may face each other again, but Quillen must first survive a primary against Danny Bentley, of Russell, on May 17.

Democrats held both seats vacated by members of their party — Tanya Pullin, now an administrative law judge, and Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley — in the 98th and 8th districts, respectively, and won one, the 62nd House District, previously held by Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

Elliott, of Danville, is the lone Republican to successfully defend his party’s seat, which had been held by Auditor Mike Harmon.

Neither Elliott nor his campaign could be reached for comment, and a spokesman for Noelker said he will return to work tomorrow to compete in the fall election for the seat.

Elliott will face Steven Evans, of Danville, and Christopher Pennington, of Junction City, in a three-way primary May 17.

Tackett, a former Scott County magistrate, thanked his wife, family and campaign team in his victory over Pratt, whom he will face again on Nov. 8.

His win also represented a repudiation of Washington, D.C., super PACs, he said, alluding to television and radio ads aired by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition on his pay as a magistrate that his campaign tried to have pulled from the airwaves.

“I want to thank the voters who have entrusted me with an awesome responsibility,” Tackett, of Georgetown, said in a statement. “I will work hard to end the partisan bickering in Frankfort and put our families and communities first by addressing the tough challenges we face.”

Special election unofficial results

8th House District, 20.6 percent turnout

Jeffery Taylor, D: 3,286 votes (59.2 percent)

Walker Thomas, R: 2,261 votes (40.8 percent)

54th House District, 22.9 percent turnout

Daniel Elliott, R: 4,275 votes (58.4 percent)

Bill Noelker, D: 3,040 votes (41.6 percent)

62nd House District, 19.7 percent turnout

Chuck Tackett, D: 3,463 votes (51.9 percent)

Phillip Pratt, R: 3,210 votes (48.1 percent)

98th House District, 25.8 percent turnout

Lew Nicholls, D: 4,737 votes (57.4 percent)

Tony Quillen, R: 3,515 votes (42.6 percent)

The Kentucky State Board of elections is scheduled to certify results 1 p.m. March 15, according to a release from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’s office.

Reporting by Pure Politics Managing Editor Nick Storm and political reporter Kevin Wheatley.


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