Could Trump Candidacy Help Ky Republicans Win the State House?

Nov 3, 2016

Donald Trump will likely win big in Kentucky on November 8.

The FiveThirtyEight poll aggregator predicts the Republican nominee has a 99.6 percent chance of winning Kentucky’s eight electoral votes.

Credit J. Tyler Franklin / WFPL

But what’s still unclear is how his popularity will affect the down ballot, especially in races for the hotly-contested state House of Representatives. Republicans are trying to win a majority in that chamber for the first time in nearly a century.

As capitol reporter Ryland Barton explains, Trump could help the party crack into some historically Democratic districts in rural Kentucky.

Election Night 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.

“Tonight was not the result that we had hoped for, but it is the result that we respect.

Even then, all eyes were on the state House of Representatives. And House Speaker Greg Stumbo tried to reassure the room full of Democrats in Frankfort that the 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. Not American Pharoah. It’s an Arkansas Traveler. 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 Hillary Clinton.

The Democrat trails Trump by about 19 points in the state, according to an average of polls from FiveThirtyEight. And many downballot Democratic candidates have refused to even mention her name when campaigning.

Meanwhile, downballot Republicans remind voters at every turn that their Democratic opponents come from the same political party as Clinton.

Here’s Republican state House candidate D.J. Johnson, who’s running against incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Glenn in Owensboro, “He actually said ‘I am a Democrat and I follow Democrat policies period. 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 of Representatives have survived the state’s drift toward the Republican Party.

But that might all change with Trump at the top of the ballot, says Al Cross, a political commentator and director of UK’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.”

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 Greg Stumbo to the top of the ticket.

“…And yes Obama, I believe in the core values that he represents. Greg Stumbo said that while Obama killed coal jobs. Now half are gone. And Hillary wants the rest ‘we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of business.’”

That Hillary Clinton quote about coal has gone viral in Kentucky. Although it was taken slightly out of context, it has made her toxic across much of the state, which voted to send Bill Clinton to the White House twice in the 1990’s.

House Democrats have tried to run against Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s record, but Al Cross says that strategy might not be working because Bevin appears to be if not popular…not unpopular, “Frankly people don’t read or hear a lot about what goes on in state government. 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.”

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 2014 and 2012 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.