FRANKFORT (AP) — Rep. Jim Gooch has been targeted before in his long political career, but this time it’s Democrats trying to unseat the party-switching lawmaker in an election year when the Kentucky House is up for grabs.
Gooch, in his 11th House term, rebranded himself as a Republican late last year and is part of the GOP’s strategy to try to consolidate its power in the Kentucky Capitol by wresting the House from Democrats.
Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday wrapped up recruitment of House candidates for what’s shaping up as a grueling, district-by-district fight spanning the state. All 100 House seats will be on the November ballot. Tuesday was the filing deadline for candidates to run in Kentucky’s spring primary.
The Kentucky House is the only legislative chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats.
Gooch, who cited President Barack Obama’s coal regulations and other issues as reasons for changing parties, predicted it will be a good election year for Republicans in Kentucky.
“I would be very concerned if I was a Democrat running this fall in the last year of Obama with all that he’s going to do with regulations, and not having anyone at the top of the ticket that will bring out votes in rural Kentucky,” the Providence lawmaker said.
Two years ago, Republicans ran an aggressive campaign in trying to unseat Gooch when he was still a Democrat. Gooch on Tuesday shrugged off the hard-hitting tactics as “just politics.”
Gooch’s party switch looms as an issue this year in his western Kentucky district. His Democratic challenger is longtime Webster County Judge-Executive Jim Townsend.
“We lost 22 years of seniority by him switching parties,” Townsend said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think people are going to be kind of upset with Jim for doing that.”
Another Kentucky lawmaker who switched parties late last year to become a Republican, Rep. Denver Butler of Louisville, drew two Democratic challengers in what could be another crucial race this fall.
Most House Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election — a big plus in the party’s efforts to keep the House. One who won’t be on the ballot is Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs of Pikeville, who announced Tuesday she will not seek re-election. Four Republicans and three Democrats stepped forward for her seat.
It’s another open seat that Democrats will have to defend in rural Kentucky.
Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow, a member of House Democratic leadership, previously decided against seeking another term, as did veteran Democratic Rep. Mike Denham of Maysville.
Those races loom large in the fight for House control in November.
“We’re going to have fights in a lot of these districts,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said. “I don’t feel like that we’re at a disadvantage. We’ve got good, quality candidates. I think it will be a competitive fall.”
House GOP Floor Leader Jeff Hoover said his party was pleased with its candidate recruitment. “We have accomplished what we wanted, and that was to have a very strong field with a lot of good candidates,” he said.
Due to a flurry of defections and resignations leading up to the start of the 2016 legislative session, Kentucky Democrats saw their majority dwindle to just 50 of the House’s 100 seats. Republicans have 46, with special elections planned March 8 to fill the other four seats.
Both parties have lined up their candidates for the special elections. Hoover said Republicans are competitive in each race, but added: “To run the table will be difficult for either side to do.”
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is promising an active role on behalf of the GOP House candidates.
“I will do all I can to help them win so we can achieve a Republican majority and make real progress on these fronts,” the governor said.
Republicans are in solid control of the state Senate. Half the Senate’s seats will be on the ballot this fall.