LOUISVILLE(AP) — Democrat Cluster Howard won by the slimmest of margins in 2014, ousting a freshman Republican House member by a mere 14 votes. Now Republicans are aiming to make him a one-and-done lawmaker in their ongoing quest to consolidate power in Kentucky’s Capitol.
Two Republicans — including the former lawmaker unseated by Howard — are vying for their party’s nomination and a chance to reclaim the Appalachian seat for the GOP.
Contested primaries are set in nearly three dozen districts on Tuesday for the state House of Representatives, a dress rehearsal for the November general election when Republicans will try to take control of the last legislative chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats.
Howard’s seat in the 91st district, spread across several counties, is expected to be one of the closer contests in the fall. Tuesday, voters find out which Republican will challenge him: ex-Rep. Toby Herald of Beattyville or retired educator Randall Christopher of Irvine.
“I feel like we have a golden opportunity,” Christopher said.
Howard, unopposed in the primary, is preparing for a tough re-election fight in the district, which covers Breathitt, Estill, Lee and Owsley counties and a sliver of Madison County.
“If they look at my record and my work ethic, I’ve got a good shot,” he said.
A look at some of the other races in contention Tuesday:
KIM DAVIS ALLY
In the 99th District, Republicans are trying to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who famously went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis, a longtime Democrat, switched to the Republican Party. Now two Republicans are vying for the chance to unseat the area’s longtime representative, House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins. One is Randy Smith, a local pastor who organized rallies to support Davis and was often featured in national news stories. The other is Wendy Fletcher, a nurse practitioner who is president of the Kentucky Coalition of Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Midwives.
State Rep. Jonathan Shell, who has led Republican candidate recruitment efforts, said the party does not favor any candidates in Tuesday’s primaries.
“Each candidate would bring separate challenges or separate benefits,” said Shell, who is facing his own primary election on Tuesday from Buzz Carloftis, the former Rockcastle County judge-executive. “We give everybody a fair shake.”
Two entrenched lawmakers from Louisville are among several incumbents facing primary opponents Tuesday.
Democratic Rep. Tom Riner, whose House career began in the early 1980s, has two challengers: former Louisville Metro Council member Attica Scott, and Phillip Baker, an insurance agent and civil-rights activist. No Republican is running for the seat.
Riner’s socially conservative views have riled some Democrats, including one of his longtime colleagues, Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, who endorsed Scott. Marzian’s endorsement was promoted in a direct-mail letter sent to Democratic voters in the 41st District.
“I feel like we need a voice in Frankfort that’s going to support our Democratic ideals,” Marzian said in an interview.
Riner called Marzian a good legislator and said “she did what was in her heart.” Riner said he’s running an unconventional campaign by refusing to take campaign contributions.
“What I’m trying to do is basically prove that if you’re a decent legislator you don’t have to become beholden to the corporate special interests that basically skew our judgment,” he said.
On the Republican side, 81-year-old Rep. Ron Crimm, first elected to the House 20 years ago, was trying to fend off challenges from Jason Nemes and Andrew Schachtner.
It’s a rare primary challenge to Crimm, who has never garnered less than 63 percent of the vote. During the final days of campaigning, Crimm said he wasn’t taking anything for granted: “I always run like I need one more vote.” The 33rd District, a GOP stronghold, includes a portion of Oldham County as well as part of Jefferson County.
“There’s still work that I’ve started that I’d like to see through,” he said.
Nemes, 38, is the son of ex-state Rep. Mike Nemes, now deputy secretary of the state Labor Cabinet in Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration. Bevin has not taken sides in the race.
Jason Nemes, a Louisville attorney, questioned Crimm’s effectiveness and said he would bring “new energy and new ideas” to the House.
“In 20 years, Mr. Crimm has not put himself in a position to be influential,” he said.
Seven House seats have no incumbents running: four held by Democrats and three by Republicans. At least two open seats — held by retiring Democratic Reps. Johnny Bell of Glasgow and Mike Denham of Maysville — loom as battlegrounds this fall.