The Capitol building in Frankfort | Photo by Olivia Krauth

In the 2016 election, Republicans not only won back a majority of seats in the state House of the Kentucky General Assembly for the first time in a century, but they did so in resounding fashion, sweeping 17 seats to take a supermajority in both chambers.

Two years later, Democratic leaders have their eye on as many as 10 House seats that they believe they could flip in the election next week to cut into the Republicans’ 63-37 majority in that chamber, not even ruling out the possibility of a “wave” election that could sweep them back into the speaker’s chair.

The reason for optimism among some Democrats is the belief that the state is ripe for a backlash against Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and the public pension bill that Republican legislators passed at the last minute in this year’s session, continuing the momentum of energy among public school teachers and their supporters as they protested both the bill and Bevin’s harsh and personal criticism of teachers.

Republican Party of Kentucky leaders have conceded that they may lose a few seats in the House on Nov. 6, but say they don’t expect to lose many more, citing the significant gains they’ve made in the past two years over Democrats in terms of voters registered with their party, as well as the continued popularity of President Donald Trump, who won Kentucky with over 63 percent of the vote.

If Democrats are to have any chance of coming close to taking back the House majority, Jefferson County would have to play a critical role, where several Republican incumbents in suburban districts are perceived to be vulnerable to an upset due to Bevin’s declining popularity, if not the attempted state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools. This scenario may also play out in several Senate races in Louisville where Democrats have fielded credible challengers, though the Republicans’ dominant lead in that chamber is in no danger.

Below is a wrap up of all the state House and Senate races in and near Jefferson County next week where there is at least the possibility of a competitive race between a Democratic and Republican candidate on the ballot, including fundraising totals, policy issues highlighted in the campaigns and the partisan makeup and history of the district.

SENATE RACES (*incumbent)

Senate District 20: *Paul Hornback (R) vs. Dave Suetholz (D)

Senate District 20 candidates Sen. Paul Hornback (R) andDave Suetholz (D)

Hornback was first elected by a wide margin in 2010 and is seeking his third term in District 20, which includes not only Jeffersontown and the area to its east in Jefferson County, but all of Shelby, Carroll, Henry and Trimble counties.

In 2014, Democrats did not even bother putting up a challenger to Hornback — who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee — though most registered voters in the district remain Democrats. That changed this year with the labor attorney Dave Suetholz not only filing to run, but raising more money than Hornback, according to the most recent campaign filings with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance (KREF).

According to Suetholz’s 30-day pre-election filing with KREF, his campaign had spent over $60,000 and had $80,000 left in his war chest. Hornback’s 15-day pre-election report that was just posted on KREF’s website indicates that while he has already spent over $109,000 in the general election, he has less than $19,000 left.

Hornback has the common round of endorsements for an incumbent Republican — such as from the NRA, Kentucky Right to Life and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce — and his most consistent campaign message has been to cite the economic “boom” in Kentucky over the past two years and its unemployment rate reaching the lowest figure in decades. He has also defended the tax bill passed in this years session that lowered personal and corporate income tax while adding a new 6 percent tax to a few dozen services, and citing the legislature’s allocation of a “historic” amount of funding for public schools.

Suetholz — who represented unions as an attorney — was endorsed across the board by local unions such as the AFL-CIO, Jefferson County Teachers Association and the Louisville Fraternal Order of Police, touting policy positions of repealing the “right to work” law passed by Republicans in 2017. He also opposes Bevin’s Medicaid waiver plan that is currently in limbo due to a judge’s order and believes that charter schools are a “terrible idea.”

The amount of spending in this race has facilitated attacks lobbied between the two candidates, with Hornback criticizing Suetholz for supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 and the Senate Republican Caucus Campaign Committee stating that he “proudly stands with radicals like Attica Scott,” the progressive Democratic state representative from Louisville.

Suetholz strongly criticized one of the mailers sent to homes by the Republican Party of Kentucky that attacked him and used a photo of his children, saying that move lacked “decency” and was “beyond the pale… exactly what’s wrong with Frankfort.” He has also accused Hornback of favoring “big agribusiness” over small farmers in this district.

Senate District 26: *Ernie Harris (R) vs. Karen Berg (D)

Senate District 26 candidates Sen. Ernie Harris (R) and Karen Berg (D)

Harris has served in the Senate since the 1995 legislative session, but was nearly kicked out of office in May by his own party, as he only narrowly defeated his challenger in the Republican primary. He will face off next week with Karen Berg, a radiologist for nearly 30 years who won 67 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

While there are more registered Republicans in District 26 — encompassing a portion of northeast Louisville and all of Oldham County — Democrats were encouraged by the fact that they had more voters turn out in their primary than Republicans did in their hotly contested primary.

Harris is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and has cited his ability to direct road projects in his district, in addition to his support from a large number of business groups and his designation as a policy “MVP” by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce for three years in a row.

Berg has campaigned on progressive policies that have won her the endorsement of groups like the Fairness Campaign, Planned Parenthood, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and many local labor unions. She is for repealing the right-to-work law, opposed to Bevin’s Medicaid waiver and favors expanding gambling and legalizing medical marijuana to help pay for public pensions.

The 15-day pre-election KREF reports showed that Harris spent over $109,000 and had $55,000 left, but Berg had nearly kept pace with the six-term incumbent, spending nearly $92,000 with $5,000 in the tank. Berg cited an internal campaign poll in September to assert that the race is a statistical tie.

Senate District 36: *Julie Raque Adams (R) vs. Sheri Donohue (D)

Senate District 36 candidates Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R) and Sheri Donahue (D)

Adams is seeking her second term in District 36, which is located entirely in eastern Jefferson County. She won 66 percent of the vote in her 2014 victory, and is general regarded as one of the more moderate Republicans in the General Assembly.

She faces Sheri Donahue, a former civil engineer with the Navy who won 56 percent of the vote in her Democratic primary victory in May. While Democrats have a slight edge in registered voters in the district, nearly 4,000 more voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary.

Adams’ moderate reputation is reflected in some of her endorsements from groups that almost always support Democratic candidates, such as the Fairness Campaign and JCTA — as she supports a statewide fairness law and was opposed to the state takeover of JCPS. Her campaign has also emphasized this messaging, referring to her as a “consensus builder” who believes that “bipartisan doesn’t have to be a bad word,” noting her vote against the pension bill and her sponsorship of the bill to ban child marriage.

Donahue has pushed back against Adams’ moderate reputation by pointing out that the senator voted for the charter schools bill last year and calling her “Mitch McConnell’s protégé.” Donahue also cites her advocacy of expanded background check for gun purchases as a point of contrast with Adams, even noting that she was for the controversial Topgolf proposal for Oxmoor Mall, while Adams was against it.

Though Donahue contends that a recent internal poll put her campaign “within reach” of Adams, the most recent KREF filings show that Adams’ campaign has already spent more than $171,000, which is 17 times what Donahue has spent, and has roughly $46,000 more in her war chest. Adams is also being assisted with ads on her behalf from GOPAC, a national Republican PAC.

HOUSE RACES (* incumbent)

House District 29: *Kevin Bratcher (R) vs. Ronel Brown (D)

House District 29 candidates Rep. Kevin Bratcher (R) and Ronel Brown (D)

Bratcher has served as a representative since the 1997 legislative session in District 29, which stretches south from Jeffersontown to the Bullitt County border.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by over two percentage points, and Bratcher won a tight race in 2014 before going unopposed in 2016. He will face Ronel Brown next week, a Democrat who is a retired captain with the Louisville Fire Department and is currently a special education assistant with JCPS.

Bratcher’s campaign has praised his sponsorship of what was known as the anti-gang bill that passed in this year’s legislative session, in addition to the “Blue Lives Matter” bill that passed in the previous year. As the House Majority Whip, he was also one of the Republican leaders who helped push through the charter school bill in 2017, and was one of the six House Republicans named “state policy champions” by Americans for Prosperity-Kentucky — the state chapter of the conservative political advocacy group that is spending money on advertising for him.

Brown has criticized Bratcher’s gang bill — as have groups like the ACLU of Kentucky and the Louisville Urban League — saying it was intended “to attack people of color.” He is for increasing the minimum wage and legalizing cannabis to create new revenue for the state, earning the endorsement of many local unions, including the Louisville FOP.

Brown called for “sensible firearm safety laws” that would “close loopholes for the mentally unstable” in response to the recent double murder at Kroger in Jeffersontown. Gregory Alan Bush is charged with two counts of murder and 10 counts of first degree wanton endangerment.

Bratcher has criticized Brown for being endorsed by Planned Parenthood — citing his own Right to Life endorsement — and having his yard signs state “vote Democrat” in small font.

Both candidates had spent just over $9,000 when they filed their 30-day pre-election KREF reports, though Bratcher had $40,000 left, which is twice what Brown had remaining.

House District 31: Josie Raymond (D) vs. Leigh Jones (R)

House District 31 candidates Josie Raymond (D) and Leigh Jones (R)

Democratic Rep. Steve Riggs has held this seat in District 31 since his first victory in 1990, but he decided not to run this year. Riggs had typically won by roughly 15 percent in recent elections in the district, which runs from Hikes Point to Jeffersontown and whose registered voters are 54 percent Democrats, compared to nearly 36 percent Republicans.

Josie Raymond, a student success coach at the University of Louisville, took the Democratic nomination without an opponent. She has a progressive policy platform of raising the state’s minimum wage, creating paid family and sick leave, universal pre-K, expanding early voting and restoring education funding to pre-recession levels.

Leigh Jones, a pediatric nurse and missionary, also won the Republican Party nomination without a primary opponent, but has run a very limited campaign, as she has yet to report raising any money for her campaign to KREF. Despite no such filing, Jones recently sent out a mailer that simply read “VOTE AGAINST SOCIALISM” in a large font on one side.

Raymond’s 30-day KREF filing reported that her campaign had spent nearly $13,000 and had $63,000 left to spend. She is endorsed by practically every labor union in the county, in addition to the Fairness Campaign, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Mons Demand Action.

House District 32: *Phil Moffett (R) vs. Tina Bojanowski (D)

House District 32 candidates Rep. Phil Moffett (R) and Tin Bojanowski (D)

Moffett first won this district just east of the Watterson Expressway with 53 percent of the vote in 2014, but was unchallenged in 2016 — despite being regarded as one of the chamber’s most conservative members and Democrats having a voter registration advantage of nearly 2,000 over Republicans in the district.

Tina Bojanowski, a special-education teacher with JCPS, won the Democratic nomination without a primary, and her campaign appears to be raising and spending twice as much as that of Moffett.

Moffett’s campaign has referenced a booming economy and low unemployment as reasons to stick with Republicans, though his website says that he is “an independent voice consistently voting his values over party.” He hopes that a continued GOP majority will work toward lowering or eliminating the income tax and making taxation more consumption based, in addition to “preserving individual liberty.”

Bojanowski is against charter schools and Bevin’s Medicaid waiver plan, and wants to pass legislation to expand gambling and legalize medical marijuana. She is endorsed by practically every union in the city, including the FOP, in addition to the Fairness Campaign and Moms Demand Action.

According to the 15-day KREF reports of both candidates, Bojanowski’s campaign has spent over $20,000 and has $56,000 left, both of which are double the figures of Moffett. However, Moffett does have AFP-Kentucky buying digital ads for him, as he is one of the conservative group’s “state police champions.”

House District 33: *Jason Nemes (R) vs. Rob Walker (D)

House District 33 candidates Rep. Jason Nemes (R) and Rob Walker (D)

Nemes first won the seat for this district in the Republican wave of 2016, winning 55 percent of the vote over Democratic nominee Rob Walker, who he will face again in a rematch this year.

The East End district includes Anchorage and Middletown, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans despite the district being served for decades by its previous representative, Republican Ron Crimm.

Like Sen Adams, Nemes has endorsements that would wouldn’t necessarily expect for a Republican, including the Fairness Campaign and JCTA, though he is also supported by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Right to Life. Like other GOP candidates in Louisville, Nemes’ campaign cites economic growth and low unemployment under Republican rule, but also his fight against merging the Anchorage school system with JCPS.

Walker is an attorney who is for legislative term limits, expanding drug courts, repealing the right-to-work law and creating an independent commission to handle redistricting after the census count. Endorsed by most local unions, Walker has also attempted to highlight that despite his endorsement by the JCTA, Nemes voted for the charter school bill and the pension bill, in addition to the tax overhaul bill.

According to the latest KREF reports, Nemes’ campaign has a major financial advantage over that of Walker, as by the 30-day filing he had already spent $49,000 and had $31,000 more in the tank, both of which were well over double Walker’s totals.

House District 46: *Alan Gentry (D) vs. James Stansbury (R)

House District 46 candidates Rep. Alan Gentry (D) and James Stanbury (R)

Gentry first won the District 46 seat in 2016, following the retirement of Rep. Larry Clark, who had served the south Louisville district for decades. Despite the number of registered Democrats in the district being nearly double that of Republicans, Gentry only won the race by just over 10 percentage points.

In addition to being the Republican nominee in the district, James Stansbury is also the chair of the Jefferson County Republican Party. His campaign has stressed that he is against abortion and wants to eliminate the state income tax, while he prolifically shares pro-Trump and anti-liberal views on his Twitter account.

Gentry is for repealing the right-to-work law and raising the minimum wage, which, along with his criticism of the pension bill, earned him the endorsement of practically every local union. He also believes that the tax overhaul passed this year will disproportionately hurt “working families and retirees.”

According to the candidates’ 30-day KREF reports, Gentry had a major financial advantage over Stansbury, as he had already spent over $20,000 and had over $31,000 left, whereas the Republican had not even raised $10,000 for the general election.

House District 48: *Ken Fleming (R) vs. Maria Sorolis (D)

House District 48 candidates Rep. Ken Fleming (R) and Maria Sorolis (D)

Fleming was also elected in the Republican wave of 2016 with 57 percent of the vote over Democratic nominee Maria Sorolis, who will attempt a rematch next week.

Just like District 33, Democratic voters slightly outnumber Republicans in this district despite it being represented by a Republican for decades.

Fleming — who previously served on Louisville Metro Council for 12 years — has pitched the improving economy as the result of Republican rule in Frankfort, urging voters not to “turn back the clock.” Noting that a PAC supporting Democratic candidates was attacking him over his vote for the pension bill in this year’s session, Fleming has countered that the GOP-controlled legislature is responsible for a record amount of appropriations going toward these pensions in the past two sessions.

Sorolis, an attorney and part-time teacher, has criticized Fleming over his vote on the tax bill, saying that it disproportionately helped the wealthy. She is endorsed by practically all local unions and the Fairness Campaign.

While some Democrats believe Fleming is vulnerable this year, he has a large financial advantage at his back. In his 15-day KREF filing, he reporting having spent nearly $58,000 and having over $47,000 left, while Sorolis had only raised $13,000 by the time of her 30-day report.

House District 49: *Linda Belcher (D) vs. Thomas Huff (R)

House District 49 candidates Rep. Linda Belcher (D) and Thomas Huff (R)

Belcher handily won a special election for this Bullitt County seat earlier this year, filling the seat of the late Rep. Dan Johnson, who had defeated Belcher and 2016 but killed himself in late 2017.

Despite Belcher’s resounding 68 percent of the vote in the special election, this district is perhaps trending Republican more than any other in the state, as Democrats went from a roughly 1,500 voter registration advantage over the GOP in 2016 to a 1,500 deficit behind Republicans today.

A large part of Belcher’s campaign strategy in this race has been to directly call out and criticize Bevin, saying that she intends to stand up against his “attacks on teachers.” She has also noted her vote against the tax overhaul bill, highlighting the few dozen services that are now subject to the sales tax.

Businessman Thomas Huff is the Republican nominee, referencing his opposition to abortion and advocacy for smaller government with less taxes. Sen. Rand Paul cut a video sharing his endorsement of Huff, while GOP Super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership has radio ads praising Huff as a “Trump Republican” — the national party leader who currently polls better than the state’s governor.

According to the candidates’ 15-day KREF reports, Belcher had spent slightly more than Huff in the general election, but had a remaining war chest of over $54,000, which was three times that of Huff.

House District 59: *David Osborne (R) vs. Diane Seaman (D)

House District 59 candidates Rep. David Osborne (R) and Diane Seaman (D)

House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne of Prospect represents a very reliably Republican district in Oldham County and has raised a considerable amount of money for his re-election, but the new GOP House leader finds himself in a race with a self-funding Democratic challenger who has put up $200,000 of her own money to defeat him.

Democratic nominee Diane Seaman, a retired senior executive with Anthem, has opened up her own checkbook to put up advertisements, with her 30-day KREF report showing that her campaign had already spent $59,000 and had nearly $167,000 more waiting in the bank.

One television ad of Seaman calls for raising the age of those who can buy a military-style assault rifle from 18 to 21, saying that unlike Osborne, she is not beholden to the NRA. Another ad says that because of all the “corruption and scandal” in Frankfort these days, Osborne seems more like he’s “running a frat house.”

His well-funded opponent has forced Osborne to go up with television ads of his own, taking credit on behalf of Republicans in Frankfort for rising economic investment, wages and employment, plus the reduction of the income tax and increased funding for public schools. Osborne’s 30-day KREF report showed that he had spent over $25,000 and had $100,000 left to spend.

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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