KY politics experts explain primary

Published 2:05 pm Friday, May 24, 2024

By SARAH MICHELS, Bowling Green Daily News

After the polls closed and primary results were tallied Tuesday, a few narratives emerged about the race.

Here are takes from five Kentucky politics experts.

Big picture

Nearly half of the state legislature’s seats were decided during the primary – 51 for Republicans and 17 for Democrats – while 48 races remaining in the November general election.

Five already decided races were won by state legislature newcomers, three Republicans and two Democrats. Most incumbents kept their seats, with three notable exceptions.

The Kentucky legislature’s Republican supermajority is here to stay for now, but internal Republican politics may have a greater impact on election results and policy going forward.

The effects of low turnout

Overall turnout was low for a presidential year, even for a primary, at 12.7% of registered voters.

Lower turnout typically benefits more extreme ends of political parties, and leads to results that may not necessarily reflect the will of general election voters.

“More ideological and more committed members of a party base can exercise undue influence in a very low turnout election like the one Kentucky just had,” said Stephen Voss, University of Kentucky associate political science professor.

Apathy breeds extremism, echoed former Republican Party spokesperson Tres Watson.

At the top of the ballot, 18% of Democratic primary voters chose “uncommitted” over presumptive nominee President Joe Biden.

On the Republican side, Trump earned 85% of the vote, with Nikki Haley and the “uncommitted” vote making up his greatest source of opposition.

Veteran Kentucky journalist Al Cross said the uncommitted vote is likely less about discontent with Biden’s handling of Gaza and more about people unhappy with Biden’s age or functionally Republican voters who are still registered Democrats to have more of a say in local elections.

Trump performed poorly for someone who has been his party’s nominee twice already, Voss said.

While it won’t make a difference in Kentucky, who will almost certainly go for Trump by a wide margin, that could be a warning sign about his chances in similar suburban and exurban counties in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Voss added.

Incumbent losses

Three incumbents lost their seats Tuesday.

While it may be easy to paint with a broad brush and blame losses on the rise of the Liberty faction of the Republican Party, the reality is more complex, Voss said.

When an incumbent goes down, Voss said he looks for reasons beyond ideology and campaign promises.

“If voters are content, they usually don’t shop around,” he said. “They just stick with what they have, what they know. So something has to be motivating them to consider an alternative, to think about making a switch and gaining the information needed to pick.”

One of the most moderate Republicans in the legislature, Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, lost his primary against political newcomer Thomas Jefferson by a wide margin.

The race centered around Timoney’s votes against two anti-trans bills, Senate Bill 150 and Senate Bill 83. The former banned transgender minors from getting hormone therapy, puberty blockers or gender reassignment surgery, and included various other provisions. The latter banned transgender girls and women from competing in girls’ and women’s sports.

Timoney also sponsored the bill to remove so-called grey machines from Kentucky, which garnered him the ire of grey machine operators like Pace-o-Matic, which funded his opponent.

While Timoney’s District 45 seat includes part of Lexington, it’s been Republican for a while.

But Morgan Eaves, Kentucky Democratic Party executive director, sees the District 45 seat as a potential flip to the Democratic Party come November. Jefferson faces Democratic challenger Adam Moore.

“That district is also one that’s changed a lot and I think in a post-Dobbs world, you will see that a candidate like Thomas Jefferson can’t win in the suburbs or even part of an urban metro area,” she said.

Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, lost her state Senate seat after placing third behind Aaron Reed and Ed Gallrein.

Southworth has frustrated Republican leadership for her tendency to not vote on party lines based on unique, constitutional principles, as well as for her large dose of election denialism.

While Southworth was an incumbent, her 7th District seat was heavily redistricted to add Shelby and Henry counties, and she was running mostly among voters she hadn’t represented before. But according to Robert Kahne, Democratic co-host of My Old Kentucky Pod, the effort to oust Southworth may have backfired.

Despite significant support from political leadership and traditional Republican backers, Gallrein fell just short of Reed, another Liberty candidate.

“I think they made a deal with the devil and the devil took his pay,” Kahne said. “I don’t think that they’re gonna get what they bargained for in Aaron Reed, (he) definitely feels like just as much of a thorn in their side as Adrienne Southworth, except for maybe a little bit more organized and also a little bit more heavily associated with some of the Liberty people in the House.”

Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield, lost to Kimberly Holloway with 48% of the vote. His loss is less clear cut, but there are a few potential explanations.

Heath, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has been in office since 2012. His district was hardest hit by the 2021 tornadoes. His constituents may have been displeased with the status quo and wanted to try out someone new.

On a local level, Heath also faced animosity over breaking his promises not to run in statewide races, as well as filing a frivolous lawsuit against a popular family in the area, Watson said.

There were several other close votes in which incumbents narrowly held on. In Kenton County, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, barely beat challenger Karen Campbell.

Moser spoke out against Senate Bill 150, making a statement during debate that angered Republican leadership – “I’d like to say to the rest of the world who is watching Kentucky; we are not Neanderthals.”

Louisville Democrat Daniel Grossberg held on by less than a hundred votes against Bhutanese refugee Mitra Subedi.

Kahne noted that Grossberg’s seat is one of the Voting Rights Act opportunity districts in Louisville, perhaps the least white district in the state, and that Subedi may have matched its demographics more than Grossberg.

In Warren and Edmonson counties, Rep. Michael Meredith easily held on to his seat against Liberty challenger Kelcey Rock.

Meredith is liked by more conservative and traditional Republicans and Moser typically votes conservatively despite her reputation of working across the aisle, while Timoney is more of a pure moderate who is less likely to stick to party line votes, Kahne said. 

“One of the things that very much mattered was for the moderates, who either lost or hung on, their own ideologies seemed to be the real guiding force,” Kahne said.

Liberty Republicans vs. establishment Republicans

A rising faction of Republican insurgents, or Liberty candidates, have emerged in recent years. The loosely defined group includes Republicans who tend to oppose Republican leadership, have strict constitutional, anti-regulation views and are often supported by politicians like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie.

To understand the Liberty faction, one has to look at the bigger political picture, Cross said.

“You can’t just view these legislative elections in a vacuum,” he said. “They are part of a 15-year insurgency within the Kentucky Republican Party that rejects much of what Mitch McConnell and other establishment Republicans stand for.”

None had an issue getting re-elected, even though in some races, Liberty candidates’ Republican opposition attracted significant funding. One example is the the 66th House seat, where Liberty candidate T.J. Roberts defeated former state representative Ed Massey in a nearly 50-point margin.

Kahne said some anti-Liberty funding didn’t seem to have an impact.

“It reminds me a little bit of the 2022 cycle for Democrats, where there was heavy investment in a few races, and it just didn’t make any difference at all,” Kahne said. “In terms of like, some of these areas are just lost to you, and the way that you had been running in them in the past just wasn’t working anymore.”

Eaves said Liberty candidates don’t necessarily vote too differently than establishment Republicans, but they are disruptors who are “aggrieved just to be aggrieved.”

She said their primary wins show her that the GOP can’t control itself or its candidates.

“They can’t keep the chaos caucus under control, they can’t even disavow things that are very hurtful to a lot of Kentuckians,” Eaves said.

That division benefits the Democratic Party, and they will be focused on flipping as many seats as possible, Eaves added.

Watson, former Republican Party spokesperson, said really, Liberty Republicans only got a very limited portion of overall Republican support, considering the low turnout.

The 2026 elections, with U.S. Senate primary races raising turnout, will give a clearer picture, Watson said.

“It’s the more casual voters who come this fall, they may look up and say, ‘Who are these crazy people that are running?’ “ Watson said. “They’re running as Republicans, but they didn’t show up in the primary.”

Voss isn’t convinced that Liberty candidates’ wins say much about the overall direction of the state, since the only race that was clearly about an intra-arty, ideological challenge involved perhaps the most moderate, and therefore, vulnerable, Republican in the legislature – Killian Timoney.

But, the perception that Liberty candidates won big in the primary, no matter how oversimplified that idea may be, will have an impact on future legislative behavior and election decisions, Voss said.

In recent sessions, the Kentucky legislature has passed culture war legislation in either a “highly watered down form” or not at all, Voss said. He mentioned Senate Bill 6, a piece of anti-DEI legislation that didn’t make it to a final vote this year, as an example.

“Now that legislators have seen the risk of drawing a Liberty Republican primary challenge, they may be less willing to resist proposals related to social and cultural life,” Voss said.

– Follow regional reporter Sarah Michels on Twitter @sarah_michels13 or visit