LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Democrat James Kay won a three-way special election Tuesday to fill a vacancy in the Kentucky House, spoiling a bid by Republicans to pick up a seat in their quest to win control of a chamber long dominated by Democrats.
Kay defeated Republican Lyen Crews and independent John-Mark Hack in a big-spending race in central Kentucky that drew the attention of statewide political leaders, signaling the election's importance to both parties heading into the 2014 election.
Kay, an attorney, will replace fellow Democrat Carl Rollins, who left the Legislature to take the top job with the state student financial aid agency. The district, taking in stretches of Kentucky's scenic horse country, includes Woodford County and parts of Fayette and Franklin counties.
"I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work for the people of this district," Kay said in declaring victory after a hard-fought two-month-long campaign.
Kay overcame GOP efforts to link him to President Barack Obama, who has never been popular in most of Kentucky. In his victory speech, Kay promised to reach across the partisan divide to work with "anyone ... who wants to improve the lives of Kentucky families."
With Kay's victory in the 56th District, Democrats regained their 55-45 advantage in the House heading into next year's election, when all 100 seats will be up for grabs.
Republicans control the state Senate.
For Crews, it was his latest setback in his bid to join the Legislature. He lost to Rollins in 2010.
"I can definitely tell you that we left nothing on the field," Crews said Tuesday evening.
Unofficial results show Kay received 44 percent to 34.4 percent for Crew. Hack trailed with 21.6 percent.
Kay will serve the remainder of Rollins' term, which runs through the end of next year.
Kay had outpaced his opponents in fundraising, taking in $132,649 through June 10. Crews had raised $68,806 through the same period, and Hack had garnered $23,467.
Crews had benefited from the independent Republican State Leadership Committee, which reported spending more than $177,000 in the race.
Leading Democrats including Gov. Steve Beshear, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and state Auditor Adam Edelen pitched in to help Kay.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer was among prominent Republicans who tried to boost Crews' campaign in a district where Democrats far outnumber Republicans.
A GOP win Tuesday would have left Republicans just five seats away from claiming an outright House majority.
Kay, 30, fulfilled the confidence his party had in him to keep the House seat in the Democratic column, said Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo. He praised Kay for his "fresh ideas" and his willingness to work across party lines.
"We need more young people like him, and I predict you'll see that happen on the Democratic side in next year's House races," Stumbo said.
University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss said earlier Tuesday that "every victory helps" in building a majority, and said the outcome could energize donors and volunteers for the victorious party.
But he cautioned against overstating the importance of a single election that drew disproportionate amounts of campaign cash and attention.
"It should be nothing but a blip," he said. "Both the Democrat and the Republican in this race have resources and are getting attention like nothing a regular state legislative candidate would normally expect to receive. And it just makes the campaign unrepresentative of what's going on more broadly."