Republican-passed bill removes role of Democratic governor if Senate vacancy occurs in Kentucky

Published 3:27 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

By Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press

FRANKFORT — Kentucky lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a bill stripping the state’s Democratic governor of any role in picking someone to occupy a U.S. Senate seat if a vacancy occurred in the home state of 82-year-old Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The legislation calls for a special election to fill any Senate vacancy from the Bluegrass State. The special election winner would hold the seat for the remainder of the unexpired term.

“So it would be a direct voice of the people determining how the vacancy is filled,” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said while presenting the bill to his colleagues.

The state Senate voted 34-3 after a brief discussion to send the bill to Gov. Andy Beshear. The governor has denounced the measure as driven by partisanship, but the GOP supermajority legislature could override a veto when lawmakers reconvene for the final two days of this year’s session in mid-April.

The bill’s lead sponsor is Republican House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy. He has said the measure has nothing to do with McConnell, but instead reflected his long-running policy stance on how an empty Senate seat should be filled.

Rudy refers to McConnell as a “great friend and a political mentor,” and credits the state’s senior senator for playing an important role in the GOP’s rise to dominance in the Kentucky legislature.

Rudy has said his bill would treat a Senate vacancy like that of a vacancy for a congressional or legislative seat in Kentucky — by holding a special election to fill the seat. The bill includes an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately if enacted into law.

Rudy introduced the bill in February and it cleared a House committee a day after McConnell’s announcement that he will step down from his longtime Senate leadership position in November. The decision set off a wave of speculation back home in Kentucky about the future of his seat.

In his speech from the Senate floor, McConnell left open the possibility that he might seek another term in 2026, declaring at one point: “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Aides said McConnell’s announcement was unrelated to his health. The senator had a concussion from a fall last year and two public episodes where his face briefly froze while he was speaking.

Rudy has said he’s talked about changing the way a Senate vacancy is filled for more than a decade, since the conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for crimes that included seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. Rudy’s district in far western Kentucky borders Illinois.

Beshear — who won a convincing reelection victory last November over a McConnell protege — had already seen his influence over selecting a senator greatly diminished by GOP lawmakers.

In 2021, the legislature removed the governor’s independent power to temporarily fill a Senate seat. That measure limits a governor to choosing from a three-name list provided by party leaders from the same party as the senator who formerly held the seat. Both of Kentucky’s U.S. senators are Republicans. The measure became law after GOP lawmakers overrode Beshear’s veto.