FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Democrats won three of four special House elections on Tuesday, dealing a blow to Republican takeover attempts in the last legislative chamber in the South that still eludes their control.
Democrats successfully defended seats in Greenup County near the border with Ohio and West Virginia and Christian and Trigg counties near the border with Tennessee. Those seats were vacated when new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin appointed their representatives to a pair of well-paid state jobs, sensing an opportunity to build on the momentum of his unexpected election in November.
But Republicans failed to hold a seat in central Kentucky that was vacated by a popular young conservative who was elected the state's agriculture commissioner in November. Republicans' only win of the night came in Boyle and Casey counties, where attorney Daniel Elliott defeated former Navy fighter pilot Bill Noelker
"The rebirth of the Democratic Party occurred tonight," House Speaker Greg Stumbo said.
The victories give Democrats 53 of 100 seats in the House of Representatives. But Republicans will try again in November, when all 100 seats will be up for re-election.
In Greenup County, Republican Tony Quillen conceded to Democrat Lew Nicholls shortly after 7 p.m. in a district that hinged on union politics. Nicholls credited organized labor and public school teachers for powering him to victory in what he described as a rebuke of new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's policies.
"There was a lot at stake, and these are stakeholders in our community and they got out and they worked hard," Nicholls said.
The victory by Democrats assures they will have at least the 51 votes they need to pass a budget that will most likely roll back most of Bevin's spending cuts. Bevin has proposed using the savings to begin to pay down the state's multi-billion dollar pension debt.
But college and university presidents said the cuts would force them to raise tuition and could cause the elimination of some academic programs, while K-12 advocates said the cuts would hurt public preschool options.
"The Republicans are not funding education like they should in Frankfort," said 67-year-old Janet Covington, who voted for the Democratic candidate in Scott County on Tuesday.
Democrats poured all of their resources into Tuesday's special elections, including Democratic President Barack Obama, who recorded a robo call urging voters to elect African-American Democrat Jeffrey Taylor in Hopkinsville because "Jeff Taylor will protect your health insurance, not take it away," according to a report in The Richmond Register (http://bit.ly/1RyS0xG).
Hopkinsville, where Taylor lives, has one of the largest African-American populations in the state. Taylor won convincingly over Republican Walker Thomas, the owner of a local roller rink.
Bevin is dismantling kynect, Kentucky's health insurance exchange, and has vowed to repeal the state's expanded Medicaid program and replace it with a less expensive version. Both programs were made possible by Obama's signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
Bevin can undo both of the health insurance programs through executive order, but Democrats could try to slow him down through the budget process now that they are assured a majority.
In Scott County, Democrat Chuck Tackett won in the district on his second try, defeating political newcomer Phillip Pratt, the owner of a landscaping business. Pratt blamed his loss on his opponent's negative campaigning.
"(Tackett) probably ran more as a Republican than a Democrat in this," he said.
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner contributed from Danville and Liberty, Kentucky.