A Key Win for Kentucky Democrats

Democrats won a narrow victory in a hotly contested Kentucky State Senate special election yesterday, pulling themselves closer to controlling the upper house of the ...
by | August 26, 2009

Democrats won a narrow victory in a hotly contested Kentucky State Senate special election yesterday, pulling themselves closer to controlling the upper house of the legislature. The Lexington Herald-Leader has more:

FRANKFORT -- Democrats chipped away at Republican control of the state Senate as Democrat Robin Webb narrowly defeated Republican Jack Ditty in a special election Tuesday for a vacant seat in northeastern Kentucky.

Republicans now hold a 20-17 margin in the Senate, with one independent member, bringing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear closer to his goal of allowing slot machines at horse racetracks.

Unofficial results in the 18th Senate District -- Mason, Bracken, Robertson, Carter, Greenup and Lewis counties -- show Webb collecting 8,684 votes to Ditty's 8,402. Independent Guy Gibbons garnered 953 votes.

Those vote totals come to 48.1% for Webb, 46.6% for Ditty and 5.3% for Gibbons. Voter turnout was 23.6% of registered voters -- not at all shabby for an August special election.

Democrats can crow that they picked up a Republican-held seat in a red state. The 18th District went for Republicans John McCain and Mitch McConnell last year.

Republicans might note that they had an underfunded, lesser-known candidate who still made the race exceptionally close. The 18th District, which was won easily by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear two years ago, has 18,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans.

When both sides have plausible spin, it's best just to say that both sides are right, which means both are wrong. While having Webb in the Senate will help Beshear advance his agenda, a single special election in Kentucky shouldn't be gleaned for grand judgments about the political environment. If anything, the election yesterday is a reminder that where candidates call home often matters as much as the parties to which they belong -- even in an era of seeming hyper-partisanship .

Ditty is a dermatologist from Greenup County. Greenup is one of the more Democratic counties in the district. Beshear won two-thirds of the vote there when he was elected in 2007. Yet, last night, Ditty, the Republican, triumphed on his home turf by a sizable 700-vote margin.

That result would have doomed Webb if she didn't have her own base of support in Lewis County and Carter County, the area she represented in the state House of Representatives. Lewis County is the 18th District's Republican bastion. John McCain won two-thirds of the vote there and even Beshear couldn't beat flawed Ernie Fletcher.

Yet Webb held Ditty to a tiny 100-vote margin in Lewis County, a result so discordant with the county's standard voting behavior that the head of the state Republican Party speculated about voting irregularities. It doesn't seem surprising to me, though, that a local elected official would be able to outperform her party's standard showing with voters she has represented for years.

Still, Ditty would have won had Webb not produced a 1,150-vote margin in Carter County, her home county. Carter leans Democratic, but not that Democratic. As Webb noted in the Herald-Leader article, "The people who know me best voted for me."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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