After special elections defeats, Ky. Republicans reopen campaign to “flip” House

Tuesday, March 8, was a tough day for Kentucky Republicans.

Democratic candidates took three of the four open seats in the House of Representatives. The wins in Tuesday’s special elections increased the lead Democrats hold in the House. Democrats now hold 53 seats, compared to 47 for the Republicans.

The special election results were a major turnaround from just four months ago, when then-candidate Matt Bevin defied all predictions and won the governor’s race by a resounding margin. Bevin’s coat tails were so long that he also helped sweep Republicans into the offices of treasurer, ag commissioner and auditor of public accounts.

The November results were more than just a major Republican win, they were a repudiation of the shining stars of the state’s Democratic Party. Alison Lundergan Grimes retained her seat as secretary of state, but faced a tougher fight than she expected. Meanwhile, Democratic auditor Adam Edelen, who was respected and proactive in his job and considered a future candidate for national office, was unexpectedly trounced by Republican Mike Harmon.

In his election night victory speech, Bevin urged voters to then “flip the House.” Bevin, for his part, did what he could to help narrow the odds, but appointing two House Democrats to government posts. Things were so tense in Frankfort leading up to the special elections that House Democrats declined to bring forth a budget until after the elections were over, state Rep.  Jim Glenn, an Owensboro Democrat, said two days after the elections.

The special election results completely change the dynamic of the General Assembly’s budget negotiations. If Republicans had managed to win all four seats — and they tried, by outspending Democrats in the races — there would have been a 50-50 split in the House, preventing Democrats from advancing their budget without making major concessions to House Republicans. That budget would likely have been changed further by the Republican Senate, with the backing of Republicans in the House.

The end result would have been something extremely close to the budget plan Bevin announced in January, which includes budget cuts to just about every  branch of government, including K-12 and postsecondary education and the judicial branch.

Instead, House Democrats increased their majority, encouraging them to announce their budget will not include Bevin’s cuts to colleges and universities. The budget that comes out of the House Tuesday will doubtless divert from Bevin’s plan in other ways. For example, instead of cutting funds to the judiciary — something Chief Justice John Minton Jr. says would be devastating to the courts — it’s highly possible the House plan will include funding for a Family Court judgeship in Daviess County, something that Minton, the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce and Owensboro-area Republican and Democratic House and Senate members support.

Instead of House Democrats having to negotiate with a Republican majority, the Republican Senate can expect to have to work out deals with Democratic leaders when the budget goes to an inevitable conference committee.

So what happened during Tuesday’s special elections? The easiest answer is that people generally seem to prefer divided government. But there were other factors at play.

First, we need to at least consider the possibility of what I’d call “Bevin Shock.” Shortly after the November elections, the Washington Post sent reporters to Pikeville to interview voters. They found people who had voted for Bevin, seemingly without knowing Bevin’s plans to dismantle Kynect, the state’s health insurance exchanged created under the Affordable Care Act, or of his plan to alter the state’s Medicaid expansion.

“(I)t doesn’t look to me as if he understands,” Pikeville resident Dennis Blackburn told the Post. “Without this little bit of help these people are giving me, I could probably die. . . . It’s not right to not understand something but want to stamp it out.”

If voters didn’t know Bevin’s plans, that’s certainly not Bevin’s fault. During the campaign, Bevin was certainly out front about his plans to dismantle Kynect and switch Kentuckians who used it to the federal health insurance exchange, and about his plan to apply for a federal waiver to alter the Medicaid expansion. Bevin said, time and again on the trail, that the state cannot afford the cost of the Medicaid expansion, and that Kynect is an unnecessary  and expensive duplication of the federal exchange. What Bevin’s Medicaid changes will look like are yet to be seen.

Then, there was Bevin’s budget proposal.

Bevin’s budget plan focuses on cutting government spending, in order to pump more money into the state’s badly underfunded state employee and teacher retirement systems. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, agree the pension crisis is actually a crisis — but the scope of Bevin’s proposed cuts gave Democrats an issue to exploit, which they did.

Almost as soon as the House budget review subcommittees began meeting, the Democrats lined up a number of officials — university presidents in particular — who testified about how the cuts would (they say) decimate their institutions. To people who aren’t teachers or state workers, the pension systems might seem a bit abstract — but when you start talking about putting the hallowed halls of UK and U of L on the budget chopping block, or about slicing into the community colleges, people take notice.

Republicans have charged that the universities are overplaying their woes, and that the big universities are stacked with overpaid people. On Thursday, a member of Senate leadership took to the floor to attack the severance packages of college personnel. They may have a case — but it’s a lot easier for Democrats to say “cuts to education are bad” than it is for Republicans to make a policy argument about the need to shore up pension systems that don’t directly affect most Kentuckians anyway. The pension crisis doesn’t easily lend itself to slogans.

When the Democrats rolled out a plan to provide free tuition for high school graduates to attend community colleges, they essentially framed the issue as: We are for college education, Republicans are against college education. Unfair? Sure. But when did fair count in politics? The Republicans were simply outmaneuvered on the issue.

Despite Tuesday’s losses in the House races, Republicans would still very much like to retake the House, and that goal is not out of reach. A pickup of only three seats would split the House, and more than that would swing the chamber. The new campaign for the House began Friday, in the Senate.

Friday morning, Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, stood up and launched an attack on Kynect and the Affordable Care Act, which is more commonly known as “Obamacare.” In retrospect, I wish I’d counted the number of times Stivers said ether “Obama” or “Obamacare.” It was certainly more than 10 times in the space of a couple minutes. I’m paraphrasing here, but Stivers called the ACA/Obamcare an expensive, job-killing boondoggle, echoed Bevin’s declaration that Kynect is just a “Web site,” and called on House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, to hold hearings or debates on the ACA.

“But let’s take a vote, let’s see where the votes are on this issue,” Stivers said. The public, Stivers said, “deserves to know where everybody stands on this issue.”

Well, that’s a call Stumbo is certain to ignore, but it does point out the Republican strategy going forward — to pin House Republicans to President Barack Obama as much as possible.

As strategies go, it makes sense — Obama remains deeply unpopular in Kentucky, even while Kynect is considered something of a national model, and despite the fact that 500,000 people received health coverage, mostly through the Medicaid expansion but also through Kynect, between 2013 and 2014.

You can expect Republicans to say the “O Word” a lot in the coming months, and you can anticipate television ads where the faces of House Democrats will appear next to Obama’s. Republicans were outspending Democrats $3 to $1, Rep. Tommy Thompson, a Philpot Democrat, said a week or two before the special elections, and money won’t be in short supply again for Republican candidates in the fall.

Running against Obama has worked for Republicans before. We’ll see in the coming months how Republicans fare by returning the anti-Obama playbook.