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Kentucky Democrats seek to win ground in the GOP-dominated statehouse

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's a handful of states that have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures. Kentucky is one of them. Its Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, comfortably won reelection last year, and Democrats there see an opportunity to win back political ground in the Republican-dominated statehouse. One Democratic group is planning to pour millions of dollars into these races across the country. But the question remains if Democrats can find enough candidates. Sylvia Goodman from Kentucky Public Radio reports.

SYLVIA GOODMAN, BYLINE: Katrina Sexton is a school board member in rural Kentucky, but this year, she's running for the state House of Representatives and showed up less than an hour before the deadline to file her candidacy.

KATRINA SEXTON: I've had some people, you know, push and encourage me to do it. And, you know, I feel like it's important that people have a choice.

GOODMAN: She's a Democrat running in a district that hasn't had a Democratic candidate since 2018. She says she's running even if she's not sure she has a chance.

SEXTON: I just felt like people needed to have a voice, need to have a choice in who they're electing instead of just one person on the ballot. I know it's a long haul to try and overturn that.

GOODMAN: A national group is planning to raise $60 million to support Democratic legislative candidates this year, and they say about 30% of that will go to candidates in red states. Abhi Rahman is communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. He says the group is paying special attention to states that have Republican-led legislatures and Democratic governors.

ABHI RAHMAN: In Kentucky, like, there's definitely a path with Andy Beshear. He showed that there's a path to, like, really building infrastructure.

GOODMAN: When Governor Beshear won reelection last year, Democrats wondered if his success might be a roadmap for regaining a foothold in other red states. Republicans heavily invested in state races in recent decades, controlling two-thirds of legislative chambers in 2016. But Democrats are trying to make a comeback, flipping 10 chambers since then. Rahman says having more Democratic lawmakers, even without totally flipping control, means more power for Democratic governors.

RAHMAN: There are states where the governor's veto is basically overridden, and then Republicans are able to do basically whatever they want in those states because of that.

GOODMAN: In Kentucky, Democrats have a long way to go, with Republicans holding 80% of legislative seats. Democrats say they've worked hard to recruit candidates in key areas, especially districts that Beshear won in November. But after the filing deadline, Democrats only fielded candidates for 57 out of a hundred seats in the state House of Representatives. But it's not for lack of trying, says Democratic state Representative Cherlynn Stevenson, who led recruitment efforts.

CHERLYNN STEVENSON: I would like to let them have a look at my spreadsheet of how many phone calls have been made, how many people have been chased. The number is astounding.

GOODMAN: The DLCC says their investments depend on whether state parties can prove they're able to put up a fight. Stevenson says it's hard fielding candidates in a lot of these districts. Democrats have faced a deluge of negative ads and mailers from Republican groups in recent years.

STEVENSON: We believe that a lot of folks have the wrong idea. They're listening to only one side of cable news, and we feel like we have been demonized a ton.

GOODMAN: Come November, 40% of legislative seats will be totally uncontested in Kentucky, and the vast majority of those will go straight to Republicans. But one of the Democrats taking a chance is Robb Adams, a retired firefighter-paramedic from Carrollton. After about 10 years as mayor, he's running for state representative.

ROBB ADAMS: I knocked on every door - every door, every apartment, walked the streets myself, did it myself, didn't expect anybody to do it for me.

GOODMAN: Adams is a Democrat, but this is the first time he has to run with his party affiliation next to his name, in a district where the Republican incumbent won nearly 70% of the vote two years ago.

ADAMS: I know we're up against that, especially in a presidential race. But I hope that I can get my message across to them that I'm truly only doing this for the people of the 47th district.

GOODMAN: Democrats like Adams are trying to avoid the long coattails of the presidential race. Though Governor Beshear comfortably won reelection here last year, President Joe Biden's approval rating drags far behind.

For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Goodman in Frankfort, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sylvia Goodman