FRANKFORT, Ky. — Three prominent Kentucky House Republicans were defeated in bruising GOP primaries that reflected growing pains within the state's dominant political party.
Several other incumbent GOP lawmakers successfully fended off tough challenges on Tuesday.
The epicenter of the Republican intraparty battles was in northern Kentucky — where the shakeups occurred. State Rep. Adam Koenig was unseated by Steven Doan. Rep. C. Ed Massey lost to Steve Rawlings, while Rep. Sal Santoro was defeated by Marianne Proctor.
Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, in sizing up the three races, said Wednesday that a “libertarian-populist narrative worked in a very, very low turnout election.”
Koenig and Massey were committee chairmen while Santoro had a key role in setting transportation spending as a budget review subcommittee chairman. Koenig also gained prominence for leading the push to legalize sports betting in Kentucky — an effort that came up short again this year.
Incumbent GOP lawmakers fared much better elsewhere in the state. State Sen. Donald Douglas defeated challenger Andrew Cooperrider in a high-spending primary. Other incumbents who won closely watched primaries included Reps. Kim King, Brandon Reed and Samara Heavrin.
Asked to assess the overall primary season, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Wednesday said: "What I'm seeing are nastier primaries. And we need to get beyond nasty elections in general. I don't wish some of the mailers that I saw on anybody.”
Beshear is preparing for his own tough reelection fight next year.
With Republicans so dominant across much of Kentucky, winning the GOP primary in many districts is tantamount to securing a legislative seat. It has resulted in some hotly contested races.
“I don’t see a huge message in this primary other than it was the first of many where virtually all the action of import will be in May GOP primaries,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentuckian and former adviser to President George W. Bush. “We’ve become so dominant so fast, and the GOP will have to reckon with these internal fights for many years to come.”
Republican supermajorities in Kentucky's legislature include lawmakers characterized as business-oriented conservatives, social conservatives and libertarians. Many of their views overlap — on such issues as gun rights, low taxes and opposition to abortion. Some of this year's GOP primaries pitted traditionally conservative incumbents against libertarian-minded challengers.
“What you're seeing is just growing pains because the Republican Party is growing in Kentucky,” Reed said in an interview Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Reed, the vice chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, won his primary with nearly 70% of the vote in his rural district. Reed emphasized the primary victories by lawmakers aligned with the “traditional party” — which he said has reshaped Kentucky policies since the GOP won total control of the legislature after the 2016 election.
Asked if he saw room in the party for libertarians, Reed replied: “I think there's room in the Republican Party for Republicans. If you want to be a libertarian, you probably need to go join the Libertarian Party and run as a libertarian.”
While the losses among the three northern Kentucky lawmakers garnered considerable attention, Thayer pointed to the success of other GOP incumbents in Tuesday's legislative primaries.
"Most incumbents were rewarded for their work passing a lot of priority conservative legislation over the last couple of years," Thayer said in a phone interview.
Primary losses by Koenig and Massey will create openings for two committee chairmanships. Koenig has been chairman of the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee. Massey wielded influence as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The outcomes of GOP primaries, both this year and in likely contested primaries in coming years, could factor into the divides that sometimes surface in the legislature on such issues as charter schools and whether to legalize sports betting and medical marijuana.
With Koenig's defeat, another lawmaker will have to step up as the primary sponsor of legislation to legalize sports betting in Kentucky.
“It's important that we elect people to all offices that can help us get things done,” Beshear said in an interview at the statehouse. “That are willing to put differences aside and push forward on key issues like sports betting and medical marijuana. Their time has come and we need to make sure that we are electing people who believe in them.”
Elsewhere, GOP voters settled two incumbent-vs.-incumbent primaries -- the result of a new House redistricting map passed as a result of statewide population shifts reflected in the 2020 U.S. census.
In western Kentucky, Rep. Jim Gooch Jr. defeated fellow Rep. Lynn Bechler. In a newly drawn eastern Kentucky district, Rep. Bobby McCool defeated Rep. Norma Kirk-McCormick.
Associated Press Writer Piper Hudspeth Blackburn in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this story.