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Will Kentucky House Democrats Start Voting Like Republicans?

Kentucky state Capitol

In the wake of Matt Bevin's election as governor, state Senate Republican leaders are predicting that House Democrats will start supporting some GOP priorities in a bid to appeal to conservatives.

House Democrats are increasingly wary of losing members after Louisville Rep. Denny Butler recently switched his party affiliation to Republican. If Democrats can stay unified, they’ll be able to use their 53-47 majority to decide which bills out of the Senate will move on to the new governor’s desk.

Kentucky’s House is the last Democratic-controlled state legislative chamber in the South.

House Democrats will have their eyes on staying electable in an increasingly Republican state, with all House seats up for grab in 2016, GOP Senate leaders say. Republicans are gunning for some of those seats, and Democrats may be willing to concede some issues in a bid to protect their House majority.

“We want to flip the House,” said Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer.

Republican leaders plan to renew their push for right-to-work legislation, charter schools and laws that require abortion-seekers to view sonograms of the fetus before the procedure.

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo's office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Having a Republican in the governor's mansion will change the "tone and tenor" of legislative discussions because of increased lobbying for Republican issues, said Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

"It remains to be seen how together the Democratic caucus will remain at this time," Clayton said. "But I think it’s a little premature to assume that they automatically are just going to capitulate, particularly if these are issues that they feel that their constituents are not in favor of."

Clayton said Democratic House members representing conservative districts might vote more in favor of socially conservative issues, such as bills regulating abortions.

"The state’s relatively conservative anyway, so it’ll be interesting to see how they’re going to play this," Clayton said.

Bedford Democratic Rep. Rick Rand said House Democrats would stick to their guns, and House Republicans won't have enough votes in their own caucus on issues like right-to-work and doing away with the prevailing wage on state projects.

"They won’t have 100 percent participation in many of those votes themselves on right-to-work, prevailing wage, so they probably need to count their votes before they start counting ours," Rand said.

Rand said Democrats will be interested to see what solutions Bevin puts forward.

"I think in general it’s hard to tell what we’ll do on a specific issue at this point," Rand said. "I think we’ll be open to talking to him about those, but at the same time stand firm on our principles that we have long held."

Bevin's policies will likely differ from those put forward by outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

“Their policy hasn’t been good, therefore their politics have been worse,” said Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, of state Democrats during a retreat in Maysville on Wednesday.

Thayer said more Republican politicians are getting elected in Kentucky and the rest of the South because “they are passing policies that strengthen families and create an environment for job creation and job retention.”

“It’s not about keeping score, although I love to keep score,” Thayer said of his desire to have Republicans win the House. “It’s about implementing policies that change Kentucky for a generation or more.”

Stivers said Stumbo may be willing to budge on charter school legislation, a longtime cause of Republicans that the House has routinely blocked.

“I think he sees that light in the tunnel and understands it might not be the end, it might actually be a train unless they change their policy direction,” Stivers said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.