Logjammed four-person GOP Senate primary in redrawn Ky. district is anyone’s guess

·12 min read

All four candidates running for the GOP nomination in the new 20th Senate district will tell you that they’re the one who will emerge victorious. That’s par for the course in any political contest.

Uncommon in this race, though: Who’s to say that any of them are wrong?

Frankfort candidates Calen Studler and Mike Templeman as well as Northern Kentuckians Gex “Jay” Williams and Phyllis Sparks are all vying for a piece of the cobbled-together 20th District. Their respective bases are the northern and southern poles of the district, with the rural Owen, Gallatin and Carroll counties in between.

The 20th Senate District is currently represented by outgoing Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, but only Carroll County remains from the old district.

Sen. Adrienne Southworth, who represented a majority of the voters in the district prior to this year, said she thinks it’s anyone’s guess as to who will win.

“Short of a change in the wind, I think it will be a surprise on election night,” Southworth said.

The stakes of the race are largely on two fronts: how each of the four would fare against Teresa Barton, a well-known former Democratic Franklin County Judge-Executive who has one of the best chances for her party to pick up a seat in Frankfort, and how each would change the political makeup in a Senate that sometimes upsets both moderates and those further right.

Though they don’t differ much on the issues, common course for a primary – the candidates’ have each tried to carve out their respective lane in a few different ways.

But what lanes exist for Republicans in such a district?

With two pairs of candidates at the northern and southern extremities of the district, most feel that the real battle is in the middle counties, where none have roots.

“The race is in Carroll, Gallatin and Owen counties,” Templeman said. “Who does well in those counties wins the race.”

What’s the district like?

On paper, much of the district is a safe haven for Democrats. Registration numbers in every county except the southern chunks of Boone and Kenton favor Democrats.

But that advantage in state level elections only exists in theory. In Carroll County, there are more than twice as many registered Democrats as there are Republicans – even so, former president Donald Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Turners Station, doubled up their Democrat opponents.

But several local elected officials are still Democrats, including judge-executives in Carroll and Gallatin counties as well as most every partisan elected official in Franklin County.

Franklin County may not be that way forever, though, according to Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, a retired firefighter deeply involved in local GOP politics.

“The most telling thing about our party right now is the fact that we’ve got 13 Republicans running. I’ve done my research and asked a lot of people – that’s never happened in Franklin County,” Fitzpatrick said. “So that’s a big deal for Republicans here.”

Many residents in Franklin County feel that state government has left them high and dry in more than one regard: retirees from the county’s largest employer have not received a raise or cost-of-living adjustment in several years and the promise of downtown Frankfort revitalization through the redevelopment of the old convention center land has yet to materialize.

John Sower, former mayor and longtime city commissioner who was for several years the most prominent conservative elected official in Frankfort, said that Franklin Countians also felt left out by recent redistricting, which put them at the edges of U.S. Congressional and State Senate maps.

“Franklin County is the southernmost county in the Senate race, and the northernmost County in the congressional races,” Sower said. “Just looking at it, it’s like a fist with a finger pointing up in the congressional race, and it looks like maybe a thumb pointing down on the Senate race.”

The pockets of suburban Northern Kentucky have been deep red for a long time. And Williams, who represented them in the ‘90s before falling short in a run for U.S. Representative, knows that well.

The Washington Post described him as “a leader of the ‘moral’ wing of the Kentucky Republican Party” in 1998.

John Thompson serves as the Editor for the Carrollton News-Democrat and the Owenton News-Herald. He says that the Trump era of Republican politics helped shift the rural counties of the district toward the party. And local officials across the region, including Owen County Judge-Executive Casey Ellis, have switched from the party of their heritage to the GOP.

“There’s some frustration in the general area. I know it’s called the Golden Triangle, but at least in the counties that I cover there’s a frustration with being overlooked,” Thompson said. “I think that has played an incredible role in shifting these traditionally Blue Dog Democrats into a secure Trump base.”

Thompson said that there are two main concerns on the ground in these counties: roads and drugs.

“Our state highways are in abysmal, abysmal shape. And it’s a recurring theme at fiscal court meetings where constituents will come and say, ‘hey, EMS said that they can’t provide services to me on this road because the road is not well enough maintained,’” Thompson said.

Drugs, he said, are a major concern for communities like Carrollton that have plenty of jobs but have a hard time attracting workers to live in town because of the opioid epidemic, Thompson said.

Thompson, who’s followed the race closely as both an editor and reporter, says he has “no idea” who will win.

He added that Owen County, in particular, may see high turnout on election day because of contested local judge-executive and sheriff primaries.

Barton’s presence looms as well. Fitzpatrick, who is supporting Sparks and also helped Barton in a previous campaign more than 20 years ago, says that part of the reason he’s supporting Sparks is that he believes she has the best shot against Barton.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that Republicans will win. She comes from the largest county in the district where she held countywide office and she’s been both a Democrat and effectively a Republican,” longtime Kentucky political commentator and Frankfort resident Al Cross said.

Cross added that Barton worked for former Republican governor Ernie Fletcher and supported his reelection.

Population breakdowns for the 20th Senate District are as follows: Franklin County has 51,541 people, Owen County has 11,278, Carroll County has 10,810, Gallatin County has 8,690 and the portions of Boone and Kenton County included in the district total a combined 32,631 people.

Carving their lanes

Phyllis Sparks

Phyllis Sparks, once a vice chair of the now-fractured Boone County Republican Party, is running as a bridge-builder between factions of the Republican party.

She said that she only got in the race after Williams once Templeman joined to challenge Studler – knowing that with two even splits in Northern Kentucky and Frankfort, the playing field was leveled between the two regions.

Sparks says that her living on a farm and owning a small business – her family runs a heavy industrial crane and rigging business – plays to her advantage.

“I’m just out there talking about the issues that have been important to me my entire adult life and it seems to be resonating with a lot of the voters,” Sparks said. “I connect easily with farmers and small business owners throughout this district.”

Sparks says she is the only candidate who has a working relationship with House transportation committee chair Rep. Sal Santoro, R-Union, which could give her an edge in a road-preoccupied district. It also doesn’t hurt to be the only woman running, she said.

A delegate to the 2020 Republican National Convention, Sparks features a photo of her shaking hands with Trump on a mailer.

At $67,083, Sparks has the heftiest campaign warchest of the bunch. She loaned herself $50,000.

Calen Studler

Studler, though relatively young at 46, is a campaign veteran. He’s run in Franklin County, and much of the district, every other year since 2018. He started off with an unlikely campaign against Rep. Derrick Graham in solidly blue Frankfort, then got boxed out to his right by two Anderson County candidates in a 2020 Senate primary.

He’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of some other Kentucky GOP names who fell short in their first efforts.

“Some of these previous campaigns have been name-ID campaigns for me and I believe the third time’s the charm, “(Auditor) Mike Harmon didn’t win until his third time running for state house. Rep. Dan Fister (of Versailles) didn’t win until his third time as well.”

His native Franklin County is by far the largest population base, as the portions of otherwise populous Boone and Kenton counties are at the outskirts and he pointed out that he ran in 2020 in Owen and Gallatin counties. Though confident in his victory, Studler said that four candidates vying for over 10,000 total votes make it “a bit of a crapshoot.”

Studler, who is bullish on trade school, says that his experience navigating life as someone who didn’t graduate from college is a major asset.

“My life experience is the difference. I owned a house at 20 and I didn’t go to college. There’s nothing wrong with going to college, but 65% of Americans don’t have a college degree. I am a typical blue-collar Republican and I’m there to represent the majority of the district who are like me,” Studler said.

A mailer features Studler aiming a shotgun with the slogan “conservative leader, conservative values” emblazoned above.

Studler is the only candidate who responded with an emphatic “yes” on questions about bills that would legalize sports betting and medical marijuana in Kentucky.

Mike Templeman

Templeman’s campaign, which has been mostly self-funded, has used targeted ads for each region of the district.

In Frankfort, a mailer about him being a former state worker and the need for state government retirees to receive cost of living adjustments. The mailer says that Templeman, a former state trooper, will be “a voice for state employees.”

“They’ve treated them like bastard red-headed stepchildren at a family reunion,” Templeman said of Franklin Countians. “They’ve got to be represented by Republicans.”

For the Carroll County crowd, Templeman released a video stating that he’ll stand up to defend the local Ghent power plant – a major hub for jobs – from any hypothetical threats to its existence.

He also wants to take drastic measures to try and curb Kentucky’s opioid epidemic, such as charging those who knowingly sell the deadly drug fentanyl for murder.

Thompson noted that Templeman’s “I Like Mike” campaign signs were starting to pop up more frequently in the late days of the primary. The candidate has raised more than $60,000, though he loaned himself nearly all of it.

Templeman’s last run for office didn’t go over so well. Rep. Andy Barr handily beat him in the 2010 primary for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, and the Herald-Leader published an article that shone a light on Templeman’s several fines and violations incurred as an Eastern Kentucky coal mine operator and businessman. Templeman called that story a “total hit piece.”

“There’s no way you can be in the energy business and not have those kind of issues. Donald Trump, look at him,” Templeman said. “Anybody that’s been in business for a significant amount of time, they have those things come up.”

Templeman told the Herald-Leader that he did not support legalizing medical marijuana and only supported a constitutional amendment that allowed Kentucky voters to decide on expanded gambling, including sports betting.

Gex “Jay” Williams

Williams’ campaign has two major selling points: he’s been here before and he’s most aligned with the growing ‘Liberty’ wing of the party.

Touting endorsements from noted state COVID-19 restriction critics on the state and national level – Northern Kentucky U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Turners Station, who represents two counties in the district – Williams has carved out that space in the four-way race.

Massie’s PAC has sent out mailers praising Williams.

Williams said that combination of experience with the Senate’s key players, including GOP Floor Leader Damon Thayer, and strong conservative bonafides will help grant some legitimacy and influence to those fighting to make the Kentucky legislature more conservative than it already is.

“I won’t do it by yelling and saying nasty things because I don’t do that to people, but we’ll be a more conservative Senate with me there. I believe that I’m the candidate who can make Thayer more conservative,” Williams said.

In response, Thayer pointed to his high marks from the American Conservative Union. He’s got a 90% rating from the organization, which advocates for conservative policies, hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and rates politicans based on their perceived level of conservatism. That’s nearly the highest rating in the Kentucky Senate.

Williams was a Senator for two terms in the 1990s before losing in the 1998 4th U.S. Congressional District to Ken Lucas, who flipped the seat blue.

He’s raised $53,700, a figure that doesn’t include PAC contributions.

On two hot topics from this past session, Williams said that he would be in favor of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use and “would have to look at a specific bill” for legalizing sports betting.

He thinks that he can duplicate Southworth’s “outsider” status in Franklin County, pointing out that she did better than Franklin County natives in the 2020 election. Having the support of someone like Sower doesn’t hurt ther, either.