The slowly rising tide of Republican electoral gains in the commonwealth turned into a tsunami last week as the GOP gained 17 state House seats in Tuesday’s voting.
The journalists on KET’s Comment on Kentucky discussed what the massive shift in political power will mean for Frankfort, and how other results from the elections could impact Kentuckians.
A Historic Flip
Before Tuesday’s votes, Democrats held a 53-47 majority in the state House of Representatives. When the General Assembly convenes in January, Republicans will have a 64-36 supermajority in the chamber. It will mark the first time in more than 90 years that the GOP has controlled the House.
The dramatic flip is the result of several factors. Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader says President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who are deeply unpopular in rural Kentucky, proved to be a significant drag on down-ticket Democrats. Even powerful veterans like House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) and House Transportation Committee Chair Hubert Collins (D-Wittensville) fell to the anti-Democratic sentiment. Brammer says both men had brought many state resources back to their districts over the years.
Kentucky Democrats also had a significant fundraising disadvantage and had trouble countering GOP ad buys in several races. For example, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent $360,000 on defeating Speaker Stumbo, according to Tom Loftus of the Louisville Courier-Journal. He says that’s an unprecedented amount of money for a super PAC to devote to one House district.
Out of state donations also helped the GOP’s overall campaign strategy. Loftus points to how Arthur Laffer, the Reagan administration adviser often credited as the father of supply side economics, and several of his colleagues donated $170,000 to 20 Kentucky Republican candidates and the state party organization.
Finally, Democrats have also done a poor job of stocking their political bench with younger talent, says cn|2’s Kevin Wheatley. He says GOP leaders have welcomed up-and-comers like Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Treasurer Allison Ball, and Rep. Jonathan Shell (R-Lancaster) into their ranks. But Wheatley says old guard Democrats have been slower to embrace their party’s rising stars.
Rep. Jeff Hoover will be the new House Speaker when the legislature convenes in January. Loftus says the Jamestown Republican got emotional at his first news conference after the election. Hoover had sought the job for 20 years and was elected without opposition from his caucus, says Loftus.
With Republicans about to have full control of the legislature, Gov. Matt Bevin is eager to press his agenda of right to work legislation, pension reform, tax modernization, and other issues. Brammer says Hoover declined to get specific about his plans for next year’s 30-day session, but he said Hoover might consider taking up tax reform in a special session later in 2017 or in the regular 60-day session in 2018. Before all that, the new Speaker has 15 House committee chairs to select, and Brammer says Hoover must figure out how to manage far-right members of his party.
Both caucuses will have leadership positions to fill come January. Wheatley says Rep. Shell, along with Rep. Jill York of Grayson and Rep. Phil Moffett of Louisville, could get Republican posts. Among Democrats he says, Rep. Jody Richards of Bowling Green, Rep. James Kay of Versailles, Rep. Chris Harris of Pike County, and Rep. Joni Jenkins of Jefferson County may vie for the minority leadership.
Trump and McConnell
President-elect Donald Trump won the commonwealth by more than 574,000 votes and with a 30-point margin. Brammer says that Trump’s message of change resonated with Kentucky voters, particularly those who want the coal industry revived and the Affordable Care Act repealed.
The coal issue was particularly effective in the state’s mining regions. Loftus says Trump won Perry and Pike Counties with more than three-quarters of the vote, and by nearly that much in Muhlenberg County. Wheatley says Clinton’s sound bite about putting coal miners and companies out of business was the topic of many political ads in those regions.
Following through on his campaign promises may not be easy for the new president. Brammer says that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged last week that reversing Obama Administration environmental policies may not bring many coal jobs back to eastern Kentucky. And completely repealing Obamacare without putting huge numbers of Americans off insurance will also be a challenge. But Brammer says McConnell might get behind a Trump proposal to invest in infrastructure projects as a way to make much-needed repairs and create jobs.
Despite some concerns that Republicans might lose control of the Senate, the GOP did hold on to 51 seats, and McConnell will keep his job as majority leader. Wheatley says that means Kentucky’s senior senator will have to work with Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation through the chamber.
Other Election Results
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul easily won a second term in Washington. The Republican defeated Lexington Mayor Jim Gray by nearly 15 points. Wheatley says Gray supported his fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton but didn’t go out of his way to talk about her. As a result, Gray won in seven Kentucky counties. (Clinton prevailed in only two counties.) Wheatley says Gray also tried to distance himself from the national Democratic Party and focus more on economic issues pertinent to the commonwealth.
Brammer says it will be interesting to see how Paul gets along with President-elect Trump. The two men exchanged sharp attacks in the early days of the Republican presidential primary. Brammer says he thinks Paul still has presidential aspirations.
Republican James Comer swept every county in the 1st Congressional district and defeated Democrat Samuel Gaskins by 45 points. Wheatley wonders if Comer will have a challenger in 2018 given the commanding victory he just scored. Comer will succeed former Rep. Ed Whitfield, who retired in September, and will complete the remainder of Whitfield’s term during the upcoming lame duck session.
The opinions expressed on Comment on Kentucky and in this program synopsis are the responsibility of the participants and do not necessarily reflect those of KET.