Kentucky House: A Democrat's Surprise Win

You'd think that after the Scott Brown experience, I (and everyone else) would learn not to take election results for granted. But, I'm ...
by | February 4, 2010

You'd think that after the Scott Brown experience, I (and everyone else) would learn not to take election results for granted. But, I'm a slow learner. I had assumed that Republicans would hold a Kentucky House of Representatives seat on Tuesday.

Not so, as Somerset, Kentucky's Commonwealth Journal notes:

Somerset -- A Lebanon Democrat with a big vote majority in his home county of Marion will fill the unexpired term of Jimmy Higdon, a Republican, in the state House of Representatives from the 24th Legislative District.

Terry Mills, a retired Social Security Administration employee, won a special election over state employee Leo Johnson, a Republican from Liberty, by 3001 to 2518. Mills carried Marion County by 2,611 to 333, a sufficient margin to overcome deficits in Casey and Pulaski counties. The vacancy in the House of Representatives was created when Higdon was elected to the state Senate in December to succeed Dan Kelly who was appointed to a judgeship by Gov. Steve Beshear. Higdon had represented the 24th House District for the past seven years.

Johnson carried Casey County 1,772 to 344 and won the five northern Pulaski County precincts 413 to 46.

The reason I assumed that Johnson would win was the party registration figures for the district. The 24th District has 12,903 Democrats and 12,441 Republicans.

Ok, so now I really have some explaining to do. The 24th District has more Democrats than Republicans. Yet I still assumed the Republican would win.

The reason is that this is Kentucky. Statewide, there are 1.6 million registered Democrats and only a little more than 1 million registered Republicans. Despite that, Republicans generally have performed well in Kentucky politics in recent years. Lots of registered Democrats vote Republican. So, any Kentucky district, like the 24th, with rough partisan parity should tilt strongly for the G.O.P.

They should, that is, if partisanship matters. It doesn't look like it mattered much in the 24th, where each candidate absolutely dominated in his own home area. Mills, the Democrat, happened to have a better base from which to work. Marion County does lean Democratic and Casey County does strongly favor Republicans, so the results weren't completely inexplicable from a partisan perspective. The difference in the results in the two counties was so extreme, though, that geography, not partisanship, looks like the dominant factor.

From a practical standpoint, this election doesn't mean much. Democrats already have a large majority in the Kentucky House. The seat will be up again in number, possibly with the same two candidates. But, this is at least a modest symbolic win for Democrats -- because of the very fact that partisanship wasn't the dominant factor in a conservative district in a conservative state.

Democrats have three good wins already this year. They picked up this seat, won a key Republican-held Virginia Senate seat and their side won on the Oregon tax votes. Those wins shouldn't be cause for optimism among Democrats, but perhaps a little less pessimism is in order.

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

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