Democratic challengers and Trump coattails make for interesting fall elections in Kentucky

Published 6:03 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The first draft of the “winter book” on this fall’s Kentucky elections is out, with passage of the Jan. 30 filing deadline for the May 22 primary, and the tentative outlook is favorable for Republicans. For example, they seem likely to keep their majorities in the legislature, but just as in horse racing, there are unpredictable factors, and more so than usual.

The biggest question is the effect of President Trump nine months from now — a very long time in politics, especially with a volatile actor like him. His coattails helped carry Republicans to a surprising supermajority in the state House in 2016, and 50 percent of registered Kentucky voters approved of his job in December, much better than nationally. But the investigation of Russian election meddling still hangs over him, and he seems tempted to deal with it in ways that could hurt his party.

Trump’s standing will be most influential in congressional races. In the big surprise on deadline day, Vickie Yates Brown Glisson resigned as state health secretary to challenge 3rd District Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth. More on that Louisville race later.

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The year’s big race is likely to be in the 6th District, where Republican Rep. Andy Barr will face the winner of a primary dominated by two well-funded Democrats: 2016 U.S. Senate nominee Jim Gray, who chose the congressional race over a likely third term as Lexington mayor; and ex-Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath of Georgetown, who has attracted much national attention and support.

The other big question is what will happen in the legislative session, which must end April 15, and perhaps a special session that Republican Gov. Matt Bevin may call for tax reform. Action must be taken on the state’s badly underfunded pensions, and negative reaction to the initial plan of Bevin and legislative leaders, followed by his proposal of a budget that would hurt education, stirred opposition. More than 30 teachers or retired teachers, by far mostly Democrats, are running for the legislature.

Kentucky Democratic Party spokesman Brad Bowman also pointed to a surge of female candidates, saying it was partly a reaction to Trump and partly due to the sexual harassment scandal involving four House Republicans. (Rep. Jeff Hoover, who resigned as House speaker but denied harassment, is unopposed for his seat.)

It’s too early to tell how much a threat the Democratic challengers are, especially to the 23 GOP freshmen seeking re-election. There is clearly energy among Democrats, who have a majority of the legislative candidates. Of the 62 seats held by Republicans, 56 have Democratic challengers.

But it’s a long way from filing to winning, and the political landscape tilts against Democrats. The state’s Republican trend has accelerated recently, and the GOP monopoly on power in Frankfort gives the party a lobby-fueled financial advantage that could be decisive.

Another disadvantage for Democrats is the retirement of 11 incumbents, indicating fatigue in the party and dislike of being in a legislative minority. The retirees included Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris, once a rising star. Republicans are counting on picking up some of those seats.

“We feel great about it, especially where some of the open seats for Democrats are,” GOP spokesman Tres Watson said.

Electoral bookmaking aside, the likely Yarmuth-Glisson race (she has a primary opponent, Mike Craven) offers an unusual opportunity for detailed debate of a big policy issue: the huge changes that Bevin and Glisson made to the Medicaid program with federal approval, mainly work requirements and income-based premiums that will be phased in starting July 1.

Yarmuth and others have been highly critical of the changes, which drew fire from The Economist, a British magazine not known for liberal views. It said, “To weed out malingerers, Kentucky is proposing to build an unwieldy administrative apparatus. This bureaucratic leviathan will enforce regulations seemingly designed to catch out the maximum number of recipients.”

Asked about that, Glisson told me the state will work with community groups to help people comply with requirements to report work and income. She said the Medicaid changes should be an advantage for her, but she also wants a broader debate about Yarmuth’s “vociferous” support of Obamacare. “I think his positions are hurtful.”

Yarmuth told me Glisson will be the most substantive foe he has faced since he unseated Republican Anne Northup in 2006, but her record won’t be an advantage. “I don’t think it’s the kind of resume’ that’s going to help her politically,” he said.

Perhaps not, in the only Kentucky congressional district still represented by a Democrat. But the race should focus attention on some complex issues that rarely get the sort of discussion that leaves the public better informed. Let the debates begin.

Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.