FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Their grip on power in Kentucky’s legislature was swept away by the Trump wave of 2016, but Democrats are fighting back with their biggest lineup of candidates in years.
But their main advantage in a state that’s surged toward the GOP might be President Donald Trump’s absence atop the ticket in November — and unrest about a contentious first year under Republican rule in Frankfort.
Conceding that Trump remains popular in Kentucky, Democrats hope the adage that all politics is local rings true this year.
Tapping into what they say is discontent over Kentucky’s budget and pension problems, Democrats recruited large numbers of women and teachers to field what they say is their highest number of legislative candidates in 18 years. They’re competing in 93 of 100 House districts.
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Ironically, one of the only incumbents they didn’t challenge was former Speaker Jeff Hoover, who stepped down as speaker amid a sex scandal but still represents a district so Republican that Democrats shied away.
Two years ago, the Democrats’ House majority vanished when the GOP picked up 17 seats while Trump won the state by a landslide, ending nearly a century of Democratic reign in the Kentucky House.
“It was more about Donald Trump being at the top of the ticket than votes against our incumbents,” said Democratic Rep. Rocky Adkins, the House minority floor leader.
A leading Republican, House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, said the GOP has the “right policies” and the “right candidates” to hold its majority. He said Trump’s conservatism on issues like abortion and business will influence voters even if he’s not on the ballot.
“You take away some of the flamboyant things that he does on Twitter, and some of the things that he says, and just look at the policy,” Shell said. “That’s what the people that I talk to are looking at.”
One early test of Democrats’ efforts will come in the kind of suburban district that has been fertile ground in other states since Trump became president — but in circumstances so volatile it could be hard to read much into the result.
Voters in Bullitt County, just south of Louisville, head to the polls Feb. 20 to fill a House seat that became open when Republican Rep. Dan Johnson killed himself following sexual assault allegations. His widow, Rebecca Johnson, is the Republican candidate against former Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher.
There and in other parts of Kentucky, Democrats hope to replicate recent successes in other places that backed Trump. So far, 36 contested legislative seats have flipped from Republican to Democrat nationwide since Trump took office, according to the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposals to overhaul public pensions and cut spending in ways that could hurt Kentucky school districts convinced Democratic challengers like Charlotte Goddard to run.
“I feel like there has been an all-out assault on public education,” said Goddard, a teacher challenging a Republican House incumbent in western Kentucky.
The election wave of 2016 consolidated GOP power in Kentucky. Republicans put the state on a conservative course, enacting laws to further restrict abortions, allow charter schools and block mandatory union fees in workplaces.
Bevin has pushed for sweeping changes to the state’s public pension systems. He also proposed shifting transportation and health insurance costs to local school districts. And under his watch, Kentucky is set to become the first state to require Medicaid recipients to work.
One Republican freshman predicted Trump will remain an asset for GOP candidates.
“You don’t really believe they’re going to abandon what Trump’s doing for this country, and all of a sudden decide that we’re going in the wrong direction?” said first-term Rep. Wesley Morgan. “I think most people in Kentucky think we’re going in the right direction.”
But Democrats see frustration building.
“Lots of these people are running because they are fed up with Gov. Bevin’s proposed cuts to education and (proposed) changes to the pension system and laws that were passed,” said state Democratic Party chairman Ben Self.
Adkins predicted Democratic legislative candidates will benefit from sharing the ballot with their party’s nominees for courthouse offices. In Kentucky, local races often drive turnout.
“We have seen from past experience that when our races are local, Democrats win,” he said.
The surge in candidates signals at least part of the Democratic base is energized, said University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss. But he cautioned: “It doesn’t mean the voters are going to jump on board.”
Republican strategist Scott Jennings said the main measuring stick for Republicans will be how they handle the budget and pensions during the current legislative session.
“As long as those issues get solved in a way that people feel are responsible, I think people will continue to feel good about turning control of state government over to Republicans,” he said.