A long-standing saying among Democrats in Frankfort was that Jeff Hoover was the longest serving minority leader in the history of the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Tuesday the Jamestown Republican earned a promotion as the GOP appears to have flipped more than 15 House seats to his party.
“It was a big night for Republicans,” said former Republican Party of Kentucky Chair Ellen Williams. “Bigger than I think anybody imagined.”
Going into Tuesday’s voting, the Democrats’ margin had been 53-47. Democrats had held a majority in the chamber since the 1920s, and the Kentucky House of Representatives was the last legislative body in the South to be controlled by Democrats.
Now Republicans will hold a 64-36 majority.
Among the night’s more surprising upsets, Republican attorney Larry Brown of Prestonsburg unseated House Speaker Greg Stumbo in the 95th district, where he had served for three decades. In a concession statement, Stumbo thanked his constituents for a “great career. I hope only the best for the district, my county, my commonwealth, and my country.”
Other Appalachian-region Democrats that went down to defeat include Hubert Collins in the 97th district, John Short in the 92nd, Cluster Howard in the 91st, and Fitz Steele in the 84th.
“The Democratic base in eastern Kentucky: I think it’s gone,” said KET political analyst Al Cross. “People in a lot of these districts have been voting Republican for a good while. … Now they have, I think, become Republicans.”
Cross attributed the Republican gains to the coattails of President-elect Donald Trump, who defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 30 percentage points in the commonwealth. The fate of the coal industry was also a significant issue, Cross said, especially after Clinton said her energy policies would put coal companies and miners out of business.
“Now the Republicans control 100 percent of eastern Kentucky’s economy and bringing coal jobs back,” said former Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Jennifer Moore. “So it’s going to be up to Republicans to see if they make a difference in eastern Kentucky.”
But the GOP gains weren’t limited to the Appalachian counties. In the Bluegrass Republicans defeated Rep. Chuck Tackett in central Kentucky’s 62nd district, and in western Kentucky they unseated Tommy Thompson in the 14th district, Brent Yonts in the 15th, and Martha Jane King in the 16th.
“The voters of Kentucky have been heard and they want a new direction for the commonwealth,” said Gov. Matt Bevin in introducing Rep. Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown), who is expected to be the new House Speaker.
“Kentuckians made their conservative values heard, loud and clear, while rejecting the out of touch policies of liberal Democrats,” said Hoover. “Those strong Kentucky values will be represented well by a new Republican majority in the Kentucky House of Representatives.”
Hoover pledged to work with House Democrats, saying that he knows that members of the minority party can have good ideas. He said he would make changes to the chamber so that all 100 members could work together for the good of the commonwealth.
Republicans also credited U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell for his organizational and fundraising assistance that helped the state party field a larger slate of candidates and provided advertising resources to support GOP challengers. In a written statement, McConnell said the new Republican House along with the GOP-led Senate can work with Gov. Bevin to enact many needed reforms. Party officials point to measures that will include right-to-work legislation, school choice, tax modernization, and tort reform.
U.S. Senate Race
Republican incumbent Rand Paul won a second term to the U.S. Senate. The Bowling Green ophthalmologist bested Lexington Mayor Jim Gray by more than 14 percentage points.
In a wide-ranging victory speech that almost sounded like a presidential stump speech, Paul referenced individual freedom, shrinking big government, limiting executive authority, Supreme Court nominees, tax policy, the rock group Pink Floyd, and expanding the Republican base.
“To win nationally, the GOP will need to become a bigger, better, bolder party,” Paul said. “We need to welcome people of all walks of life: black, white, brown, with tattoos and without tattoos.”
Gray said he was glad he took a shot at the Senate, and pledged to work with Paul for the people of Kentucky. As the first openly gay candidate to run for statewide office, Gray said he was met with hospitality and respect in his travels across the commonwealth.
“We have made tremendous progress in our treatment of LGTBQ Americans, but there are still too many kids in our country who grow up feeling like they have to hold to this secret about who they are,” Gray said. “Let’s remind ourselves, we are all God’s children, and in America we are all equal under the Constitution.”
Republican James Comer cruised to victory in western and southern Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District. He defeated political newcomer and Hopkinsville construction worker Sam Gaskins by 135,000 votes.
Comer, a former state agriculture commissioner, said he will take office immediately to complete the remainder of former Rep. Ed Whitfield’s term. (Whitfield retired in September.) The Monroe County native said he wants to address over-regulation.
“People want the federal government to get off the backs of the small businesses and let the private sector flourish,” Comer said. “I want to take my experience to Washington and try to bring some common sense there.”
Two Republican incumbents were unopposed in this election cycle: 2nd District Congressman Brett Guthrie will serve a fifth term in Washington, and 5th District Congressman Hal Rogers advanced to his 19th term at the U.S. Capitol.
In northern Kentucky’s 4th district, Republican incumbent Thomas Massie scored a 42 percentage point victory over Democrat Calvin Sidle of Highland Heights. Massie said he wants to tackle the federal debt and secure funding for road and bridge projects in his district.
“I’d like to see us bring some of that money that we’re spending on infrastructure overseas in other countries, and bring it back here to this country,” Massie said.
Congressman John Yarmuth returns to Washington as the lone Democrat in Kentucky’s federal delegation. He defeated Republican businessman Harold Bratcher by 27 percentage points. Yarmuth said his party must continue to fight for the rights of immigrants, women, minorities, and the disabled as well as for affordable health care, and other progressive causes.
“When they prioritize billionaire investors over investments in our nation’s future and gun manufacturers over gun victims, tell them we expect more, we demand more,” Yarmuth said.
And Rep. Andy Barr won his third term in Congress from the Bluegrass region’s 6th District. The Republican credited his parents for instilling in him the values of hard work, honesty, persistence, charity, and a love of country.
“These are the values that after a divisive campaign season can unite this country and heal our divisions,” Barr said. “These are the values that I am fighting for each and every day in Congress.”
Barr defeated pastor and former Kentucky Council of Churches Executive Director Nancy Jo Kemper by 73,000 votes. Kemper said she would pray for Barr and the members of the new Congress. She said it was fitting that she had been reading “Don Quixote” during her long-shot campaign.
“Although we may have lost the election, we’ve won in many other dimensions,” Kemper said.
Speeches from candidates and state political figures
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R) Re-elected
Candidate for U.S. Senate Jim Gray (D)
Congress 3rd District John Yarmuth (D) Re-elected
Congress 6th District Andy Barr (R) Re-elected
Democratic Candidate, 6th Congressional District, Nancy Jo Kemper
Congress 5th District, Hal Rogers (R) Re-elected
Congress 2nd District, Brett Guthrie (R) Re-Elected
James Comer (R) Wins 1st Congressional District race
Congress 4th District, Thomas Massie (R) Re-elected
Ky. Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers (R)
Ky. State House Rep. Jeff Hoover (R)
Ky. Gov. Matt Bevin (R)