LEXINGTON — While the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes will grab its share of headlines across the nation, Kentucky pundits will be watching state House races as the GOP jockeys for control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a century.
This fall will offer the first look at exactly how far the first-term incumbent’s coattails stretch down the ballot.
With Grimes headlining the ticket, House Democrats like their chances of not only maintaining control of the chamber come Nov. 4, but adding to their 54-46 majority, as well.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo predicted a seven-seat swing — four held by Republican incumbents and three open districts — for his party during Grimes’ victory celebration at the Carrick House in downtown Lexington Tuesday.
“Notice all the new faces in there,” Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said of Grimes’ supporters at the event. “Look at the young people she’s brought. Look at particularly young, professional women and young, professional men who she relates to. I mean, democracy is predicated upon change, and people understand it’s time for a change — I believe that with all my heart.”
Part of Stumbo’s optimism, he said, comes from his party’s ability to recruit strong women to run for House seats in GOP districts.
He said Democrats “out-recruited the Republicans this time by a far margin,” listing female candidates such as Ashley Miller in Louisville’s 32nd House District, Jacqueline Coleman of Nicholasville in the 55th, Audrey Haydon of Bardstown in the 50th and Gretchen Hunt in Louisville’s 48th.
“Now granted, those are tough districts,” Stumbo said. “They’re Republican-leaning districts, but it’s in this cycle. Who’s going to show up? That’s the question, and if Alison brings the type of young, new voters that I think she’s going to — not just young women, young and new — I believe that they’ll stay with the Democratic platform, the Democratic program, and I think our candidates will succeed.”
Jonathan Hurst, Grimes’ campaign manager who formerly served as the House Democratic caucus director, said Grimes would generate significant support for Democratic candidates throughout Kentucky.
“All 120 counties will be a part of this campaign,” Hurst said. “We will work to communicate with voters in every area of the state, and I think that will be a very big boost for our party when we have a candidate that will make areas competitive in Kentucky that haven’t been competitive in past elections.”
But Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Steve Robertson dismissed Grimes’ ability to improve prospects for down-ticket Democrats. “I guess they have to have something to cling to, and this sounds like their latest thing,” he said in a phone interview.
McConnell and the GOP will make a “very specific and articulate case” not only for the incumbent’s re-election to the U.S. Senate, but also why the state needs more Republicans in the General Assembly, Robertson said. Some national issues, such as the Affordable Care Act, may be woven into Republican attacks against Democratic lawmakers this election cycle, depending on the district, he added.
“If we’re talking about the Kentucky state House, the list goes on and on and on about the bad service that the customers are getting — the customers being the people of Kentucky — from House Democrats,” Robertson said, reiterating his optimism that the GOP would assume control of the chamber for the first time since the 1920s.
Democrats interviewed at Grimes’ celebration event said McConnell and his allies would find difficulty pinning the first-term secretary of state to President Barack Obama as referenced by McConnell in his victory speech Tuesday.
“There’s no question in my mind that they’re going to try to define her in the manner that they would like to define her, but I don’t think that’s going to be successful,” said House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook. “I think Alison has the work ethic to be able to travel this state, to be in all parts of this state, to define herself. I think she’s going to have the financial ability through strong contributions, not only in Kentucky but outside of Kentucky who have an interest in this race to be able to get her message out.”
House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat who is running on a gubernatorial slate led by Attorney General Jack Conway, put it bluntly: “I think anybody who knows Alison Lundergan Grimes will tell you that she is a true Kentucky original woman, and no one will tell her how to represent the state of Kentucky in Washington, D.C.”