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Kentucky House Stays In Democratic Hands

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Democrats successfully fended off Republican challengers in three of the four districts up for special election Tuesday.

“Flip the House!” has become a GOP mantra since the party's unexpected tidal wave at the polls last November.

But Republicans came up short Tuesday, winning only one of the open seats – the 54th House District – and boosting Democrats’ majority by one for the remainder of the 2016 session. Democrats Jeffrey Taylor, Chuck Tacket, and Lew Nicholls will join the chamber, keeping the party’s nearly 100-year-old majority intact – at least until November when all House seats are up for grabs.

Democratic party leaders are optimistic they may have discovered a winning message as they counter the governor's plan to trim $650 million from the budget to bolster the state's rickety pension system.

"I think it is a repudiation of Gov. Bevin's proposals around public education and healthcare," says Democratic Party Chair Sannie Overly. "We don't agree with these devastating cuts that this governor has proposed to the higher education system here in Kentucky and we don't agree with the fact that he wants to dismantle what has been hailed as the national model for implementation of the Affordable Care Act."

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover doesn’t read that much into the final vote tallies, which fell in line with voter registration numbers.

"There are four districts today. Three of them are predominantly Democrat and one of them is predominantly Republican. We won the one that was predominantly Republican. If we had lost that one, then I would feel totally different. But we won he seat we should have won," he argues.

Hoover says Republicans are instead eyeing the November elections as their best chance to upend the Democrats’ longstanding dominance in the chamber.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, meanwhile, hailed Tuesday’s special election results as the beginning of the “rebirth” for the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Stopping short of labeling the victories an outright disavowal of Gov. Matt Bevin’s two-year spending plan, Stumbo said the outcome does show voters are unhappy with his proposed cuts to education. And while it’s common for governors’ budgets to survive mostly intact, Democrats do plan to leverage their new 53-47 majority to soften the blow.

"Our focus in our budget will be on restoring the monies that were cut from public education, giving us a sound public education system," he tells WUKY. "We can do that without creating new debt and we can do that without doing great damage to the governor's budget."

Still, Bevin maintains the reductions are necessary to begin rebuilding a crumbling retirement system, which has been cited as one of the worst-funded in the nation. Asked whether the elections will hobble Republicans' efforts to keep attention squarely focused on pensions, Minority Leader Jeff Hoover says he'll wait to see what Democrats propose.

"That's the biggest obstacle. That the biggest challenge and I hope we can do it," he says.

With the elections out of the way, Stumbo says he hopes the chamber can put aside politics and get to work on their version of the budget, which is expected by mid-March.   

The four new House members will be sworn in next Tuesday.