By ROGER ALFORD — Associated Press
n the farm communities of western Kentucky, Republican state Rep. Dwight Butler has never lost an election, so it’s little wonder no one chose to run against him this year.
Challenging Butler, a respected auctioneer and realtor from Harned who has served in the Legislature since 1995, was an exercise in futility for the only two candidates ever to run against him.
But 44 other incumbent lawmakers, including some newbies to Frankfort, also are running unopposed in both the spring primary and fall general elections, raising questions about whether potentially strong candidates want no part of the chaos that is Frankfort politics.
“Maybe people have just given up,” said University of Louisville political scientist Laurie Rhodebeck. “Maybe there’s a sense that something is just broken about the state Legislature and who would want to participate in a body that doesn’t seem to want to get anything done.”
Out of 119 legislative seats up for election this year, only 36 will be on primary election ballots – 28 House seats and eight Senate seats. In all, 40 state representatives and five senators are running unopposed.
That’s not unusual in Kentucky. In some election years, the number of incumbent lawmakers without challengers is even higher. The reasons are varied, including the necessity for lawmakers living in distant parts of the state having to be away from home for about three months a year while the Legislature is in session.
“It is a daunting task to run for a legislative seat – raising six-figure sums to challenge an incumbent candidate or even to run for an open seat,” said Democratic strategist Dale Emmons. “To do that, a person has to give up a lot of personal time and time away from their vocation just to make the race. And once you’re elected, you continue to have to do that. Seldom does that legislative pay of $30,000 or so make up for that.”
The contentious image of the Legislature could also be a deterrent. Rarely has that image been so fully displayed as it was this year when a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-led Senate sparred over political redistricting and budget issues.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years to account for population changes found in the U.S. Census count. The latest count found that the state’s overall population grew from 4 million to 4.3 million between 2000 and 2010, and that the overall population had shifted from rural to urban areas. That forced lawmakers to redraw legislative maps so that each district had nearly the same number of people.
The changes produced some oddly shaped legislative districts. One House district stretched from the Tennessee line in McCreary County, zigzagged narrowly through Laurel County, then encompassed all of Jackson County. One Senate district stretched more than 130 miles from Barbourville to Morehead.
Unhappy with the outcome, some lawmakers filed a court challenge that resulted in the legislative redistricting plan being tossed out as unconstitutional.
The redistricting battle was followed by an equally contentious effort to draft a $4.5 billion transportation budget and road construction plan. An impasse resulted in this year’s legislative session ending without an agreement, forcing Gov. Steve Beshear to call lawmakers back into special session to finish the work.
Rhodebeck said the well-publicized political bickering painted “a rather unflattering picture of the Legislature.”
Even so, enough candidates stepped forward for the May 22 primary to create races in 30 House districts and eight Senate districts.
The retirements of Sens. Vernie McGaha, Tim Shaughnessy, Jack Westwood and Ken Winters created open seats that have generated widespread interest. McGaha, Westwood and Winters are fiscally and socially conservative Republicans from districts that prefer that political philosophy. Shaughnessy is a liberal Democrat from a district that has re-elected him repeatedly since he first took office in 1989.
Republicans are expected to maintain their 22-15 majority over Democrats in the Senate after this year’s elections. That majority is 23-15 if a lone independent who caucuses with the GOP is counted.
In the House, GOP leaders herald their chances of winning majority control this fall for the first time in more than 80 years. Democrats now hold a 59-41 majority.
Five Republicans aren’t seeking re-election, creating open seats in districts that traditionally elect GOP candidates. Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover believes Republicans will hold those seats, and that they will have a shot at winning four open Democratic seats in districts that have been trending Republican.
GOP Chairman Steve Robertson said having Democratic President Barack Obama at the top of the ballot this fall could provide a boost to all GOP candidates in Kentucky in the Nov. 6 general election in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 1.6 million to 1.1 million.
Public opinion polls show Obama remains widely unpopular among Kentuckians who voted against him in the 2008 primary and general elections. And Robertson believes that if Democrats cross over on the presidential race this fall, they’ll be more likely to cross over on legislative races, too.