Five Takeaways from the June 25 Special Election

By Richard Nelson

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June 29, 2013

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Democratic candidate James Kay won the 56th House District special election with 44 percent of the vote. Here are a few lessons that we gleaned from the race.

Money doesn’t always win: This was likely the most expensive state House race in Kentucky history. Republican candidate Lyen Crews had some $243,000 spent on behalf of his candidacy while Democrat James Kay had $182,000 spent on behalf of his candidacy. Kentucky Family Values—the Democratic Super PAC poured some $50,000 into the race while the Republican State Leadership Committee Super PAC flooded the race with over $175,000 in outside advertising. At least $450,000 was spent on the race by all three candidates. (Final election finance reports will show even a higher total) Big money poorly spent doesn’t translate into victory.

Constant negative ads are a detriment: When a political race is carpet bombed with negative ads, it is tough for the voters to see through the smoke.  It is even worse when the attacks come from out-of-state groups. Voters saw the hit and run campaign on local boy James Kay by the Washington D.C. group as much worse that the local boy’s excessive speeding tickets. Washington D.C. attack ads don’t play well in Kentucky House races.

Be clear about your principles: Voters want to know the candidate’s positions on the issue. There were two candidates who staked out some conservative positions (one more than the other), but neither were consistent on all the conservative issues. The reliably liberal candidate seemed clear on the liberal issues. Voters want clarity on the candidates and their positions.

Political Stunts often backfire: Just two weeks before the election,  an additional 114  voters (mostly Democratic) were moved into the district by Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins. He said he was simply correcting a precinct boundary error—an error that was on the books for 16 years  but was “discovered only recently.” The dubious timing of this “discovery” backfired as Lyen Crews won the Fayette County precincts by a margin of 588 votes to Kay’s 536.

Criticizing your opponent isn’t equal to casting a vision: Who are you? What do you stand for? What will you do once you get elected? Voters want answers to these questions. Berating an opponent might knock him down, but it doesn’t elevate the accuser and explain his vision. Beleaguered and beaten up local candidates who cast a vision often get the sympathy vote.

Candidate                    Votes           $ Raised        $ Spent by Super PACS        $ per Vote
James Kay (D)                 3925              $132,000                       $50,000                                   $46.37
Lyen Crews (R)                3065               $68,000                      $175,000                                   $79.28
John-Mark Hack (I)        1925               $22,000                                                                           $11.43

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center