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In Battle For State House, A Louisville District Is Center Stage

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Republicans are intent on holding onto a legislative district in south Louisville where a state lawmaker switched political parties to join ranks with Gov. Matt Bevin last year.

The seat is the bedrock of the GOP’s campaign to win a majority in the state House of Representatives after Rep. Denny Butler switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Local airwaves have been sprayed with commercials supporting his re-election.

Democrats still have a heavy advantage in terms of voter registration and history. Butler is facing Democratic challenger McKenzie Cantrell, a lawyer and former lobbyist with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

A longtime Democrat from a family with deep political ties, Butler switched to the Republican Party just before this year’s legislative session, saying he no longer shared the values of the Democratic Party.

Butler has campaigned against what he calls a “culture of corruption” among House Democratic leaders, who he criticizes for not being transparent in the oversight of a fund dedicated to police and fire fighter training and incentive pay.

“The money is not being used for what we are collecting it for,” Butler said. “It’s never been audited. And that concerned me.”

An audit of the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program Fund released in September showed excessive spending of the fund’s resources.

Cantrell, Butler’s Democratic opponent, says that Butler is focusing on the KLEFPF issue to distract from the fact that he switched political parties.

“I think he’s sort of created this story about corruption in Frankfort as sort of a cover for some of his own inconsistencies in his record,” she said. “I think most people believe that you should not be elected as one thing and be funded under one particular party and be elected by a particular group of people and then turn your back on them.”

Advantage: Democrats

Butler’s switch came amid a blitz by GOP leaders to attain a majority in the chamber after the election of Bevin, though he says the move wasn’t the result of political pressure.

Democrats have a major voter registration advantage in the district with 16,140 voters compared to Republicans’ 8,315.

The district also voted twice to send Barack Obama back to the White House, a point not lost on Butler, who says he still feels “good about” his chances of getting re-elected.

“It’s a district where the Republican shouldn’t win,” he said. “That didn’t play into me standing up for what was right. We stuck to our plan, we got our message out, I think it’s been well-received.”

The district is union-heavy and both candidates say they would oppose “right-to-work” legislation that would forbid companies from requiring workers to pay union dues, a major plank of Bevin’s campaign in 2015.

Cantrell accused Butler of “running to the left” to keep control of the Democratic-heavy district.

“Well I’m the real Democrat in this race, so why not vote for me?,” she said.

The super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which supported Sen. Mitch McConnell’s re-election race in 2014, has spent heavily on television and radio advertising in the district.

Republicans are trying to win a majority of seats in the state House, which Democrats have controlled since 1922.

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