Kentucky teachers protest pension bill outside the state Capitol

Teachers from across Kentucky gathered in Frankfort to rally against the pension bill that impacts benefits for many state employees.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After what might be a historic number of teachers and educators filed to run for seats in Kentucky’s General Assembly this year, Tuesday’s primary elections represented the first real test of their political strength.

Twenty-three candidates with education backgrounds sought to become their party’s nominee for the Nov. 6 elections in Tuesday’s primaries, according to lists compiled by political party spokesmen and a former Kentucky Education Association president.

Ten were successful, including an upset 123-vote win by high school math teacher R. Travis Brenda over House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell in the 71st House District’s Republican primary, while 13 saw their candidacies snuffed out, at times by wide margins.

Some saw Tuesday’s results as a harbinger of things to come Nov. 6, especially considering recent laws passed in the legislature that altered pension benefits for future teachers and created public charter schools in the state, while others cautioned against reading too much into this year’s primaries that involved current or former educators.

“Educators have long memories, and they said we’ll remember in November over and over because they meant it,” said KEA President Stephanie Winkler, referring to an oft-repeated chant at education protests during this year’s legislative session.

“They know that the final straw is the general election in November, and they’re going to hold people accountable.”

The Kentucky Educators Political Action Committee endorsed in some races, but Winkler said she heard that several teachers throughout Kentucky volunteered for local primary campaigns.

Democratic political consultant Jared Smith saw that happen in a race where his candidate, Cherlynn Stevenson, faced off against Gail Swanson, a professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Stevenson, a Lexington event planner and the daughter of a teacher who ultimately won the 88th House District primary by more than 20 points, had support from educators on both sides of the political spectrum, he said.

“They didn’t care if there was a D or an R next to her name, they thought Cherlynn, who’s the daughter of a school teacher, was their best person, and they worked tirelessly,” Smith said. “A lot of these are retired teachers that wore out their tennis shoes knocking on doors.”

“I think if you get the combination of a good candidate, or a halfway decent candidate, with teacher support, then they’re a force to be reckoned with in the fall,” he added.

But Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said Tuesday’s primaries shouldn’t be seen as a sign of mass teacher wins in Nov. 6 elections.

“I would caution anyone from drawing too many assumptions about what happened in yesterday’s primaries,” he said. “… The voter turnout in Kentucky’s midterm primary elections are driven by county and local-level elections, not state and federal elections.”

Republican consultant Les Fugate agreed, saying that the 23 percent voter turnout across Kentucky did not demonstrate much enthusiasm among the electorate. It’s lower than the 27 percent turnout in 2014 but higher than the 13.8 percent of primary voters who cast ballots in 2012.

He noted that the two GOP lawmakers who opposed pension reform – Reps. Wesley Morgan, of Richmond, and Tim Couch, of Hyden – also lost in Tuesday’s primaries.

“There were other issues at play, not just teaching and education, so you’ve got to take all of that into account and examine it was you look towards the fall,” Fugate said.

“But I do think Republicans need to spend some time figuring out what their messaging is about education going into the fall. They did put record amounts of funding in this last budget, and they need to figure out a way of saying that and relating it to how it was funded before. I’m not sure that they’ve done an excellent job just yet of figuring out that precise messaging.”

Candidates with education backgrounds were, more often than not, underfunded compared to their opponents. Aside from the three races in which current or former teachers competed for the same seats, only three educators came into Tuesday’s primaries with fundraising advantages, according to reports filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Those candidates – Democrats Patti Minter, Tom Williamson and Lisa Willner – comfortably won their races by double-digit margins.

None faced a starker fundraising disadvantage than Brenda, who had raised $16,126 as of 15 days before the primary. Shell, R-Lancaster, had amassed $131,243 in that time frame, taking contributions from various political action committees representing trade groups that regularly lobby the General Assembly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee also cut him a $2,000 check weeks before Tuesday’s primary.

In fact, Shell raised more money between his 30- and 15-day pre-primary reports – $59,035 – than Brenda had raised in the entire campaign.

However, Brenda got a boost with help from labor groups like the AFL-CIO and teachers who volunteered for his campaign.

Winkler said KEPAC did not endorse Brenda but that she had “heard that some of our members were involved” in the campaign.

Brad Bowman, spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, said the outcome of the Shell-Brenda race “answers the question of what kind of influence teachers are going to have in this election.”

“You have a member of House Republican leadership defending his seat with a hundred grand and help from McConnell, and he gets beat by a math teacher,” he said. “… A Republican won against another Republican, but I think the public-education narrative and the labor narrative are not going away in November.”

Fugate, however, said the talk of teachers' electoral successes after Tuesday's primaries would have been greatly diminished or nonexistent had Shell won his race.

“If he would have blown it out, then no, it would not be a talking point because there’s no data to suggest, that I have seen, that there was any energy behind it,” he said. “Turnout was down across the state.”

“They (teachers) could still have an impact in the fall,” Fugate added. “That’s yet to be determined. Just because they didn’t have an impact in the spring doesn’t mean they won’t have an impact in the fall.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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