The GOP will have its largest margin ever in the state Senate after voters in an eastern Kentucky district elected a Republican for the first time since the 1960s.
Republican Phillip Wheeler defeated Democrat Darrell Pugh in a special election last week in state Senate district 31. When he is sworn in next week, it will be the first time a Republican has held that Senate seat since 1966, according to the Legislative Research Commission.
The victory will give Republicans 29 out of 38 Senate seats. Democrats will have nine seats, a new low for the party that once dominated state politics. The largest margin for any political party, according to the Legislative Research Commission, came in 1914 when Democrats has 32 seats and Republicans had six.
"I think this is a re-alignment that started with (U.S.) Sen. (Mitch) McConnell's election in 1984," said Damon Thayer, the state Senate's Republican majority floor leader.
While Kentucky still has a plurality of registered Democratic voters, the state has been trending Republican for decades. That transformation accelerated in 2015, when Republicans won four out of six statewide constitutional elections, including governor's race. The next year, voters elected Republican super majorities in both the House and the Senate for the first time ever.
Democrats tried, again, to make the race a referendum on Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. His approval ratings have fallen after he criticized some public employees who oppose his plans to overhaul the state's struggling pension system. But just like in November, the message failed to take hold with voters.
Wheeler and Republicans focused on national issues, trying to tie Pugh to the national Democratic party and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. Campaign finance records show Wheeler's campaign spent more than four times more than Pugh's campaign. Those numbers could change as the postelection reports are not yet available.
"When they are shouting that the race is about Nancy Pelosi, which it wasn't of course, and we're whispering that it's about Matt Bevin, there is a spending advantage there that you can't ignore in a low turnout election," said state Sen. Morgan McGravey, the Democratic floor leader.
Wheeler is an unconventional Republican. He said he opposes charter schools, which are legal in Kentucky but have yet to be funded, and he's against Republican efforts to make business-friendly changes to the state's civil court rules. An attorney, Wheeler said his practices focuses on workers compensation, black lung, and social security disability benefits.
"It's not what you typically think a Republican lawyer would do, but I've been doing it for the last 15 years. I'm proud to work for those people," Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he was able to connect with the region's conservative voters who are concerned about the national Democratic party's embrace of "things like abortion rights and gun control."
"It's made a traditionally Democratic region more fertile to Republicans," he said.
That region could play a big role in deciding whether Bevin gets a second term as governor. Bevin is the favorite to win a Republican primary that includes state Rep. Robert Goforth, who has criticized Bevin's style of governing as "bullying."
Meanwhile, four candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination. Their chances of winning in November could hinge on their efforts to convince conservative, Democratic voters in eastern Kentucky to return to the party.
"If I'm the governor, I take solace in that fact," Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said.
Wheeler said his election wasn't about Bevin, adding: "I am my own man." McGarvey, the Senate Democratic leader, also downplayed the meaning of the special election, where 34 percent of registered voters participated.
"We have a message of being for public education, of being in favor of health care, of being in favor of improving infrastructure of Kentucky and actually having a fair and equal government," McGarvey said. "We're going to continue to carry that message whether we have one fewer member or not.”