By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
June 25 isn’t a date one usually associates with elections, but voters in Kentucky’s 56th House District will go to polls Tuesday in a widely watched, expensive special election.
The question is how many will vote in the state House district that takes in all of Woodford County and parts of Franklin and Fayette counties.
The race features three candidates: Republican Lyen Crews, 51, a CPA by training who works for ecampus.com, a textbook company, and formerly a financial officer at Midway College; Democrat James Kay, 30, an attorney who has worked on the staffs of Ben Chandler and state House Democratic leadership; and independent John-Mark Hack, 46, owner of Marksbury Farm Market and formerly an agriculture official in the administration of Democratic Gov. Paul Patton.
All reside in Woodford County. They seek to fill the unexpired term of Democrat Carl Rollins who resigned to take a job in higher education.
The district is Democratic by registration: 21,818 Democrats; 11,159 Republicans; and 2,007 registered as independent or other.
Special elections are always dicey because the casual voter usually isn’t engaged or motivated. They are usually decided by party activists. A special election in June, in the midst of vacation season, could be decided by an unusually small number of voters.
Woodford County Clerk Jodie Woolums said her office only sent out 18 absentee paper ballots but 242 people voted absentee at her office. The second number is a bit high for a special election but she thinks there’s a reason.
“Everybody is on vacation,” Woolums said. “It’s a bad time for a special election.” She wouldn’t hazard a guess on turnout.
But the candidates and parties see it as critical.
Crews held a “Final Four” kickoff rally Friday at a Woodford County farm attended by several Republican state lawmakers and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. The “Final Four” referred to the final four days of the election.
On Monday, Kay and about 70 Democratic supporters gathered at state party headquarters in Frankfort and the message was “every vote counts.”
Several prominent Democrats including former governor and current state Sen. Julian Carroll and Gov. Steve Beshear urged those on hand to get out and vote Tuesday and just as importantly call other Democrats and get them to go vote.
“It comes down to who turns out and votes tomorrow,” Beshear told the crowd, his arm around Kay’s shoulders.
Hack who has been heavily outspent by both of the major party candidates used a couple of tailored mailings over the weekend to spur his supporters. One showed quotes from Democrats like Beshear, Wendell Ford and even former President Bill Clinton praising Hack — but about events unrelated to this election.
The one sent to Republicans used a similar quote from Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. The Republican Party of Kentucky sent out a press release Monday making it clear McConnell hadn’t endorsed Hack.
Crews has campaigned on Republicans’ contention it’s time to give their party control of the House which Democrats have controlled since 1922; on fiscal spending issues; and what he claims is Kay’s youth and lack of experience. Like most He’s tried to make Democratic President Barack Obama an issue.
Former governor and now state Sen. Julian Carroll of Frankfort addressed Kay’s youth head-on at Monday’s Democratic rally, saying he was 29 when he was first elected to the legislature. Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, upped even Carroll, saying he turned 26 on the day he was first elected to the House.
Kay has campaigned on support for public education – the district is home to many state workers and Rollins chaired the House Education Committee. He favors expanded gambling while Crews said he would favor a constitutional referendum to decide the issue.
Hack opposes expanded gambling and proposed a surcharge on hotel room charges to support the thoroughbred industry. There are horse farms and related businesses in all three counties.
Hack is running as the outsider, attacking both parties’ performance in Frankfort. He wants voters to repeal the 2000 constitutional amendment which authorized annual sessions of the General Assembly. He is endorsed the Lexington Herald-Leader.
But he’s badly outspent, having reported raising only about $22,000 through the last reporting period. Meanwhile, Kay has raised $132,000 and Crews $68,000 during the same period.
Outside groups are spending heavily on the race. The Republican State Leadership Committee, based in Washington, D.C., has spent more than $175,000 on behalf of Crews while a pro-Democratic group, Kentucky Family Values, has spent about $50,000 on behalf of Kay.
The race will cost more than half a million dollars and if turnout is as low as some fear, it would represent an incredible amount spent per vote.
The outcome is important beyond the district. Democrats control the House majority 54-45 but Republicans hope to reverse the majority in 2014. If Crews can win Tuesday, that would narrow the gap to 54-46. Republicans would then need to flip only five seats to take control.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.