Will Donald Trump Help Republicans Win The State House?
Election night in Frankfort last year was supposed to be a celebration for Kentucky Democrats ushering Attorney General Jack Conway into the governorship, just as all the polls had predicted would happen.
Instead, at the GOP bash in Louisville, newly elected Gov. Matt Bevin led the crowd in the now-familiar chant of “flip the House, flip the House.”
Even then, all eyes were on the state House of Representatives.
Back in Frankfort, House Speaker Greg Stumbo tried to reassure the roomful of Democrats that the political party would be able to ride a popular wave created by Hillary Clinton in the coming year.
“I believe that there’s a horse out there.... It’s an Arkansas Traveler," Stumbo said in an impromptu speech. "And that horse is bringing a lady jockey. And that horse and that jockey are going to come here to Kentucky next year and help us rebuild this party."
A year later, it’s safe to say that if Kentucky Democrats have any success in this year’s election, it won’t be on the coattails of Clinton.
The Democrat trails Trump by about 19 points in the state, according to an average of polls from FiveThirtyEight. The website predicts that Trump has a 99.6 percent chance of winning Kentucky’s eight electoral votes.
But what’s still unclear is how Trump's popularity will affect the down ballot, especially in races for the hotly contested state House. Republicans are trying to win a majority in that chamber for the first time in nearly a century.
They need to flip four seats to do it. And many think Trump could help the party crack into some historically Democratic districts in rural Kentucky.
Steering Clear of Clinton
Down-ballot Democratic candidates have steered clear of Clinton, refusing to even mention her name when campaigning.
Meanwhile, down-ballot Republicans remind voters at every turn that their Democratic opponents come from the same political party as the former secretary of state.
Republican state House candidate D.J. Johnson tried to draw a straight line between his opponent, incumbent Rep. Jim Glenn, and the top of the Democratic ticket at the Red, White and Blue forum in Owensboro.
“[Glenn] actually said ‘I am a Democrat and I follow Democrat policies, period,'" Johnson said. "What he’s really saying is ‘whatever Obama or Hillary or Stumbo want, I will follow, period.’”
Opposition to national Democrats is not new in Kentucky. The state has for decades sent Republicans to Congress, partly in response to issues like abortion, gun rights and — more recently — EPA regulations that affect the coal industry.
Democrats in the state House have so far survived the state’s drift toward the Republican Party. But that might all change with Trump at the top of the ballot, said Al Cross, a political commentator and director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
“These House races are essentially local races, but when you can create a larger issue that people care about that influences their vote, such as the coal issue, then they make a change in their voting patterns and perhaps even in their party allegiances,” Cross said.
Trump is popular in rural Kentucky, especially Eastern Kentucky. Republicans have leaned hard into the coal issue this year, airing ads across the state tying House Democrats like Stumbo to the top of the ticket.
Clinton’s now-infamous quote — in which she said “we will put a whole lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — has gone viral in Kentucky. Although it was taken out of context, it’s made her toxic across much of the state, which voted to send Bill Clinton to the White House twice in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, House Democrats have tried to run against Bevin’s record, but Cross said that strategy might not be working because Bevin appears to be if not exactly popular, then not unpopular.
“Frankly, people don’t read or hear a lot about what goes on in state government," Cross said. "They hear a lot more about what goes on at the national level. With that lack of information about what’s going on at the state level, it’s easier for Republicans to identify with what’s going on at the national level and drive people’s vote in that direction.”
Bevin’s defeats in lawsuits challenging his use of executive orders to unilaterally reorganize the U of L board of trustees and cut higher education funding don’t appear to have trickled down to the local level.
At stake in all of this is control of the state House, which Democrats have held since 1922.
If Republicans net four more seats in the 100-member chamber, they’ll be on top in the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion, giving them a clear path to push a legislative agenda if they stay united.
But House Republicans thought they had a chance to take over in the 2012 and 2014 elections as well.
This year, the fate of the last chamber controlled by Democrats in the South could depend on whether Trump supporters vote Republican all the way down the ballot.