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In one night, Northern Kentucky’s delegation to the state house changed dramatically.
Three influential House committee chairs – Licensing, Occupations & Administrative Regulations Committee Chair Adam Koenig, Judicial Committee Chair C. Ed Massey and Transportation Committee Chair Sal Santoro – were all voted out in primaries against challengers running to their right.
“Nobody saw that coming. I don’t know why nobody saw it coming, but nobody did,” Ryan Salzman, political science professor at Northern Kentucky University and councilman for the nearby town of Bellevue. “We lost a lot of clout in Frankfort as a result of this. Three committee chairs, including a person who was tasked with creating the road plan, gone.”
Who beat these candidates? A slate of three people who are part of a somewhat organized cadre of Kentucky politicians cropping up in the Republican party of Kentucky. Their mission is loosely articulated, but you might know them by a couple different names.
They are ‘Liberty’ candidates, Tea Party-adjacent or any variant of a noun used to refer to someone who adheres closely to a founding U.S. document (constitutionalist, ‘We the People,’ etc.).
In Northern Kentucky, their cause extends from county party leadership all the way to its representative in Congress, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie.
They are not always in lockstep, but their goals are generally an amplified version of state Republican doctrine: COVID-19 mitigation restrictions should have been railed against harder and sooner, taxes are even more anathema, and school choice should be pursued more aggressively.
“The legislators now seem to be representing the Chamber of Commerce and not the people’s interests… We sincerely want to serve the people and do what’s right for the community. They can see a sincerity and a genuineness to it,” Steve Rawlings, who beat Massey by a margin of more than 2 to 1, said.
Others say these newcomers, two of whom face longshot Democratic challengers in the general election, are mostly in it for the theatrics.
“There are workhorses and there are show horses in state legislatures. The three of us were workhorses,” Koenig said. “The other three are show horses.”
Boone County, one of Kentucky’s fastest growing communities, delivered all three victories for these rightist candidates.
This is primarily a regional win for that wing of the party, as similarly oriented candidates like Andrew Cooperrider in Central Kentucky and Sen. Adrienne Southworth’s sister in the west failed to meet the hype. Some other primaries across the state, though, were claimed by ‘Liberty’ candidates: Senate candidates in the Golden Triangle Lindsey Tichenor and Gex “Jay” Williams as well as Rebecca Raymer and former Bevin staffer John Hodgson in the House.
So what pushed Marianne Proctor, Steve Rawlings and Steven Doan to defeat three key players in the Kentucky statehouse, and what does it mean for the party, the legislature and the future of the region?
A ripple or a tidal wave?
Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, said that Tuesday was a banner day for Republicans of her stripe.
“The results of the primary election signify a resounding message on behalf of Republican voters across the Commonwealth. They expect the supermajority to lead from the front on conservative values, and they expect them to engage in policy endeavors that are in line with a conservative agenda,” Maddox said.
Maddox is a key figurehead in the ‘Liberty’ movement across the state. She’s carried pieces of legislation – one on constitutional carry in the state and another that originally barred employers from requiring their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-91 – to varying degrees of success.
Maddox, who said that the results left her “very encouraged” at the prospect of running for governor in 2023, added that the movement’s chances at success will increase with the influx of more like-minded legislators. They might also make those currently in office “think twice” on certain votes.
One of the flag-bearers for a similar style of politics on a national level, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, said he hopes the primary results will change behavior among the GOP in Frankfort.
“We already have some Liberty legislators in Frankfort, and they’re just getting stiff-armed whenever they bring forward good legislation. Hopefully, this is a wake up call for the people in Frankfort – who are just voting with the agenda of the lobbyists – that that’s not going to get it done anymore,” Massie said.
But some in the Republican party say the results are a little more muted than ‘a wakeup call.’
Tres Watson, a former spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky who launched his own moderate conservative Super PAC this election cycle, was quick to point out that House GOP incumbents’ losses came mostly at the hands of Boone County voters, though Koenig’s district is split between Boone and Kenton counties.
“I won’t say this had nothing to do with the ‘Liberty’ movement, but there are 30- to 40-year long feuds going on up there between the establishment and outsiders,” Watson said.
Salzman said it could be a big deal for Northern Kentucky, and even the state, but that the takeaway largely depends on if Boone County is a leader or an aberration.
“One question that I have is if Boone County is continuing to set the mark for Northern Kentucky Republicans or are they an anomaly? It truly was a wave, but in many ways the wave was limited to Boone County.”
One certainty: it does shake up the GOP caucus’ committee chair setup.
With three important chairs already retiring, Koenig, Massey and Santoro’s absences will only add to the uncertainty for committees, where relevant bills must get heard before receiving a floor vote in the House.
Chairs are usually selected by the elected House leadership and announced during the caucus retreat a few weeks after the November election, according to House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy, R-Paducah.
Rudy, who’s been in the House since 2005, said that it seemed like “people are ready for change,” based on the primary results, but that the House GOP has weathered change plenty of times in its five years holding the majority.
How did they make it happen?
The import of some legislative committees isn’t immediately comprehensible – that’s not the case for Santoro’s transportation committee. He was tasked with drawing up the state road plan, and he touted involvement in securing funding for the Brent Spence Bridge project, a widely discussed infrastructure need in Northern Kentucky and for the nation’s supply chain.
“I don’t agree with him on some of his political stances, but Sal Santoro is a fundamentally decent, good guy who is extraordinarily likable. You don’t take an incumbent out like that unless there’s something going on,” said Chris Wiest, a prominent Northern Kentucky attorney who has represented Massie and Cooperrider in lawsuits.
What was going on? Proctor had knocked on every GOP voters door in the district, Wiest said. She also made a major issue out of a timely topic: the gas tax.
Wiest, who has become a leader among like-minded conservatives throughout the state and particularly in the region, also listed Proctor, Maddox and Doan on a widely distributed endorsement list.
The role of money in the results is unclear. Koenig said that, all told, his campaign unloaded about $180,000 – that’s about $150 per each of his 1,179 voters. Doan, who got 1,369 votes, raised more than $47,000.
One reason Koenig said the money didn’t result in a win for him or other incumbents like Santoro was low turnout.
“I spent $105,000 on TV broadcast and cable. I mailed and knocked on doors trying to gin up turnout. It didn’t work,” Koenig said.
Koenig and Doan’s contest was one of the lowest turnout contests in the state, Salzman said. The neighboring 68th House District saw 5,258 Republicans participate in its primary while Koenig’s 69th barely topped 2,500.
Turnout is difficult to rile up, Koenig said, when campaigning gets that negative.
“It’s all about getting people mad and angry. And making them feel like they’re getting screwed when they’re not,” Koenig said.
It probably didn’t help that Koenig indicated that he wasn’t a fan of former president Donald Trump, Salzman said.
Watson said that Massey’s problem this cycle was two-fold: his somewhat moderate politics (he’s a former school board member largely considered a friend of public schools within the caucus) and the circumstances of his initial primary win.
“You could agree with some of them, those folks 90% of the time. But if you disagree with them 10% of the time, or you’re not one of them, as they classify it, then they are against you. And that’s very unsettling,” Massey told the Cincinnati Enquirer before the election.
Former representative Addia Wuchner, now exececutive director of anti-abortion group Kentucky Right to Life, withdrew her name from the 2018 primary in the dying hours of the filing deadline, with only Massey there to file in her stead. That left a bitter tast in some folks’ mouths, Rawlings said.
Frustration, Wiest said, did play an important role in the challengers defeating the incumbents.
“I sensed the voter anger. I mean, I’ve been getting phone calls on masks in schools and NTI, vaccine mandates, for probably the last year or two,” Wiest said. “People felt like their representatives weren’t listening.”
Rawlings framed his, Doan’s and Proctor’s victories as a voter response to their vision for protecting constitutional rights devoid of outside interest.
The special interest most frequently targeted: the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Regularly the top spender of all lobbyists in the state, the chamber lobbies for what they see as pro-business legislation. That includes conservative bread and butter fiscal policy like lowering the personal income tax and cutting unemployment benefits, but it also means recommending against socially conservative causes like banning transgender girls from girls sports and barring private companies from mandating vaccines.
Democrats see an opening
For some Northern Kentucky Democrats, the primaries signal vulnerabilities for the Republican party in the region – if not now then in the near future.
“We’re going to lose influence in Frankfort, and we’re going to have people who are more interested in making a point or grandstanding instead of doing the work of government,” Matt Lehman, who is running as a Democrat against Massie in the deep red Congressional district, said.
Dave Meyer, Kenton County Democratic Party Vice Chair, said that further right candidates winning the primaries open up “inroads” for Democrats in the general election.
“These changes have shaken some things up and have opened doors for Democrats to make inroads in November,” Meyer said. “The playing field is very different now and we’re excited by that.”
Redistricting played a major factor in Koenig’s loss, in particular, Meyer said. He argued that the Republican-drawn new House map inadvertently made Koenig’s district less moderate in pursuit of tanking adjacent Democratic Rep. Buddy Wheatley, D-Covington.
The shift to make Wheatley’s district less Covington-centric forced mapmakers to take out the more moderate Ft. Mitchell, Meyer and Salzman say.
With a little help from their friends?
Massie, who was even critical of the chamber via Twitter on election night, handed out an endorsement to Steven Doan in his race against Koenig which likely buoyed Doan.
The congressman emphasized that there are more incumbents on his 20-person list of candidates he’s given to than challengers, and that he might not actually be the most involved member of Kentucky’s Washington delegation.
“Outwardly that might look to be the case, but the Republican Party of Kentucky (RPK) is largely a wing of Mitch McConnell. We haven’t done anything that approaches the sort of involvement of RPK,” Massie said.
Koenig said that Wiest also plays a major role in shaping these candidates’ policy.
When asked about the policy goals of the three challengers, Koenig said that “whatever Chris Wiest wants them to do is what they want.”
Salzman said that it’s unclear to what extent these three candidates, and other regional GOP challengers like Hand, were coordinating, but that it was more than “just happenstance and winks across the room.”
Koenig said he “finds it hard to believe” that they weren’t coordinated and that they did share resources.
Rawlings offered a quote on election night to Link NKY that stoked speculation of that charge. He said that candidates challenging incumbents in Boone County “ran together” and “got to pool resources, meet together and strategize.”
Afterward, he emphasized to the Herald-Leader that there was no “vast conspiratorial plan.”.
“There was no coalition, no agreement, no vast conspiratorial plan behind closed doors to defeat incumbents,” Rawlings said. “It’s just people being outraged, people wanting their rights back and being free.”