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State House Races Will Determine Who Runs Frankfort

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Along with elections for president, U.S. Senate and Congress, Kentucky voters will decide in November the political control of the state House of Representatives, the last legislative chamber in the South controlled by Democrats.

Kentuckians have put more and more Republicans into office over the past few decades. Last year’s election brought a new crop of Republican constitutional officers to state government, including Gov. Matt Bevin, only the second Republican to hold the office in four decades.

The state also hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1996 or U.S. Senator since 1992.

But many Democrats have still had success on a local level. After four open House seats triggered special elections in March, Democrats stunned Republicans by winning three of the four seats.

Still, Democrats’ 95-year control of the state House is at a low watermark of 53 seats, while Republicans have 47.

State Republicans have viewed this year’s House races as a blitz opportunity. All 100 seats are up for reelection, and the GOP fielded candidates in 91 of the races. They need a net gain of four seats to take the House majority.

In all, 65 of the races are contested. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the races to watch this fall.

Races In Former Democratic Strongholds

3rd District, around Paducah: Democratic Rep. Gerald Watkins vs. Republican Joni Hogancamp

In 2014, Watkins held off Republican challenger Randy Bridges, who out-raised him by more than $20,000. This year, Republicans nominated Joni Hogancamp, co-owner of Caring People Services in Paducah.

Watkins is conservative on many social issues and said he wouldn’t be campaigning against Bevin’s proposed changes to the state’s expanded Medicaid system.

84th District, around Hazard: Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele vs. Chris Fugate

A staunch coal supporter, Steele was mentioned as a representative who might switch party affiliation to Republican after Bevin took office. CNHI reported that Steele admitted Bevin tried to encourage him to switch parties.

Fugate is a pastor and former Kentucky State Police detective.

Rematches Of Close Races

94th District, around Jackson: Democratic Rep. Cluster Howard vs. Republican Toby Herald

Herald was a state representative before losing to Howard by just 14 votes in 2014. Howard is a dean and student ombudsman at Hazard Community and Technical Colleges.

78th District, around Cynthiana: Democratic Rep. Tom McKee vs. Republican Mark Hart

McKee has held the seat since 1997, when he defeated Hart in 2014 by 969 votes. Hart is the former mayor of Falmouth.

Special Elections Redux

62nd District, around Georgetown: Democratic Rep. Chuck Tackett vs. Republican Phillip Pratt.

Tackett defeated Pratt in this year’s special election by just 253 votes. The election was triggered when former Rep. Ryan Quarles resigned to become state agriculture commissioner; Quarles defeated Tackett by a wide margin in 2014.

Pratt is the owner of a major landscaping company.

8th District, around Hopkinsville: Democratic Rep. Jeff Taylor vs. Republican Walker Thomas

Taylor won the March special election by a little more than 1,000 votes. Days before the election, President Barack Obama recorded a phone message encouraging voters in the district to support Taylor, who's also African-American. Taylor is a retired Tennessee Valley Authority official. Thomas is a former Hopkinsville city councilman and owner of a roller skating rink.

Party Flippers:

12th District, around Providence: Republican Rep. Jim Gooch vs. Democrat Jim Townsend

Gooch switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after Bevin became governor last year. As a legislator, Gooch famously proposed a bill that would have made Kentucky a “sanctuary state” from federal carbon regulations.

Townsend has been the judge-executive of Webster County since 1991.

38th District, in Louisville: Republican Rep. Denny Butler vs. Democrat McKenzie Cantrell

Butler, a former police officer, also switched to Republican after being a longtime Democrat. Cantrell, an attorney with the Equal Justice Center, defeated longtime Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson in the primary. The district is heavily Democratic and voted twice for President Obama.

Open Seats:

94th District, around Pikeville: Democrat Angie Hatton vs. Republican Frank Justice

The seat is held by Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs, who was first elected in 2007 and is not seeking reelection. Justice is a former mayor of Pikeville, and Hatton is an assistant Letcher County Attorney.

23rd District, around Glasgow: Democrat Danny Basil vs. Republican Steve Riley

House Majority Whip Johnny Bell is not seeking reelection, leaving this seat open. Riley is a retired teacher and school principal. Basil is an attorney.

89.3 WFPL will air an hour-long news special on the state of Kentucky politics at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9. Listen at 89.3 or wfpl.org/stream

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