Kentucky Senate: State and National Politics Collide

Today, the political world receives a pre-Christmas, pre-Hanukkah gift in the form of a splendid special election for state senate in Kentucky. The race comes ...
by | December 8, 2009

Today, the political world receives a pre-Christmas, pre-Hanukkah gift in the form of a splendid special election for state senate in Kentucky. The race comes with major consequences for Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and his top legislative priority, expanded gambling at racetracks. The election will test the relative significance of a national political environment that favors Republicans and a state political environment that's boosting Democrats.

The race in the 14th District is to replace Dan Kelly, the Republican Senate Majority Leader whom Beshear appointed to a judgeship. It's pretty much universally acknowledged that the reason Beshear appointed Kelly was to open up a competitive state Senate district, thereby giving his party the chance to gain ground.

There's a good reason Beshear cares so much about one Senate seat. A win today for Democrats would whittle Republicans' Senate lead to 19-18, with one independent who caucuses with the G.O.P.

That would put Democrats squarely in striking range to win the Senate in November. It also would increase the pressure on Republicans to approve Beshear's gambling proposal, which he has pushed ever since taking office.

The Courier-Journal yesterday had an excellent overview of the contest, which it described as "the most expensive state Senate race in Kentucky's history." One point the Courier-Journal noted is that the Republican candidate, State Representative Jimmy Higdon, is trying to nationalize the race. He and his fellow Republicans are talking about Nancy Pelosi, cap-and-trade and health care legislation.

You can see why. President Obama was never popular in this district. He lost all five of its counties. With conservatives fired up, Higdon thinks he can win on national issues. As you can from this chart, this district has voted consistently Republican in recent federal races. Only in Gov. Ernie Fletcher's disastrous reelection bid did Democrats win more than two of the counties.

Kentucky 14th District

But, Democrats think they can win by localizing the race in a district where, despite its conservative inclinations, the party enjoys a substantial voter registration edge. Democrats already have won two open state Senate races in Kentucky this year by defining themselves as the party that will help the ailing horse racing industry. While I can't say conclusively what the people of the 14th District think about gambling, the district, located smack-dab in the middle of Kentucky, isn't too far from Louisville (where Churchill Downs is located) or Lexington ("horse capital of the world").

And, regardless of what voters think about the gambling issue, the topic clearly has helped Democratic candidate Jodie Haydon in one way: money. The former state representative has enjoyed a dramatic financial edge thanks to horse racing industry support.

So, the national environment favors Republican and the state environment favors Democrats. If those factors cancel out, the race may come down to geography. Here's a chart that shows the number of registered voters in each county.

Kentucky 14th Registration

Haydon is from Nelson County, the district's most populous jurisdiction. The last time Haydon was on the ballot, in 2002, he took 72% of the vote there. Half of the district's voters are in Nelson County or overwhelmingly Democratic Marion County, where there are nearly six Democrats for every Republican. If Haydon dominates Nelson County and Marion County, he'll only have to do half-decent in the rest of the district to win.

There's a complicating factor, however. Higdon is from Marion County and represents it in the legislature. If the Republican holds his own in Marion County, the district's other three counties are large enough and Republican enough (in voting history, if not registration) that he can afford to get walloped in Nelson County and still win.

Will Higdon hold his own in Marion County? It's hard to say. In 2002 he lost the county by nearly a 2-1 margin, but won his House district anyway thanks to strong showings in more Republican parts of the district (parts of his district, it should be noted, that aren't in the 14th Senate District). Since then, Higdon has been unopposed three cycles in a row.

So, this closely watched election with real policy significance may be a judgment on national Democrats or a judgment on Governor Beshear and racetrack gambling. But, it ultimately could be a judgment on nothing more than whether Jimmy Higdon has ingratiated himself to the people of Marion County, Kentucky over the past seven years.

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

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