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Kentucky Democratic primaries to watch ahead of Election Day

A woman casts her ballot in the 2024 primary election at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville on the first day of early voting on May 16
Justin Hicks
/
KPR
A woman casts her ballot in the 2024 primary election at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville on the first day of early voting on May 16, 2024.

All but two Democrat-held seats in the Statehouse are up for reelection this year. Several competitive primaries could shape the state’s Democratic caucus.

This primary season, 25 of the 27 seats currently held by Democrats in the state legislature are up for election. Republicans are attempting to capture a few of those seats, but in 16 of those races only Democrats are running.

Some candidates won’t face a primary challenger at all — only the incumbent lawmaker is putting themselves in the running to serve in the halls of the Kentucky State Capitol in nine of those races.

The remaining seven are some of the races to watch this year in the Democratic primaries, as incumbents fight to maintain their position and challengers duke it out over open seats. Those seven Democratic primaries will determine the names that on the ballot in their respective districts’ in November.

In Louisville, the longest-serving current senator and Senate Minority Floor Leader Gerald Neal faces a challenge from former Rep. Attica Scott.

Meanwhile, three Democrats attempt to capture the seat that Democratic Rep. Keturah Herron is vacating as she runs uncontested for a Senate seat in Louisville. And three challengers are looking to take over the seat of longtime Lexington lawmaker, Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo — including her son.

With the secretary of state predicting fewer than 15% of registered voters casting a ballot, a few hundred votes could make the difference in these primaries.

Neal v. Scott

Both candidates for Senate District 33 have served in the Statehouse, but with opposing approaches to politics — Neal touts his ability to work alongside his Republican colleagues while Scott says one of her top priorities is to call them out publicly.

Neal has served in the seat since 1989, a decade before Republicans gained full control of the chamber, and is the first Black man elected to the Kentucky state Senate. He often champions a bipartisan approach, saying the two parties agree more than disagree.

While touting budget wins for his district — like state funding for the Goodwill West End Opportunity Center and various Louisville cultural centers, Neal also bemoaned the passage of House Bill 5, the so-called Safer Kentucky Act, and the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to ban diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at public colleges.

“Being active in stopping that has been important,” Neal said. “And yet, at the same time, being able to work with those that you know you must work with to bring value… Doing this and maintaining your integrity is not a simple thing unless you're sure of who you are, what you're trying to do.”

Neal said demonizing the opposing party gets you nowhere.

“I don't interject my emotional state into what I do. I treat it like business,” Neal said. “The fact of the matter is that I believe that most people want to do right.”

Scott has made a reputation for herself as something of a firebrand. She often champions the cause of the 2020 protests around racial justice and police misconduct and was herself arrested while still a sitting state representative. The charges were dropped a month later, and she continued her activism in the Statehouse and on the streets.

“You don't have to be afraid of the bullies in Frankfort because that's exactly what they are. They're bullies,” Scott said. “They're not coming to our backdoors and having the same conversations they have in Frankfort. They're not talking to us. They’re talking about us.”

Scott decided not to run for reelection in 2022, instead running and eventually losing in the Democratic primary against Morgan McGarvey for Louisville’s U.S. House of Representatives seat. She said she decided to get back in the state politics game because the district “needs new and different leadership.”

“We need folks who are deeply rooted in community, connected to folks. Not negotiating behind closed doors, not bringing issues to our communities that we don't actually want,” Scott said.

Unlike Neal, Scott was never formally a leader in the party, and has criticized the state’s Democratic party as out-of-touch with Kentuckians, especially Black Kentuckians.

While Scott praised Neal for his years of service, she also disparaged what she called “closed door” methods. Scott said she wants to air everything in the open — in televised committee hearings and on the Senate floor.

“I’m not going to negotiate behind closed doors, because I was the first legislator to start doing Facebook Lives when I was elected in 2016. No one else was updating their district using social media,” Scott said. “People know that I'm going to keep them informed, and I'm going to hold myself accountable to them.”

It’s the first time Neal is running for reelection since 2020 redistricting redrew the lines of his district. Senate District 33 now wraps inside the bend of the Ohio River to stretch from the Clifton neighborhood, through parts of downtown, all the way to Louisville’s south end, near the county line. Neal has been through redistricting several times, shifting the demographics of his district.

“The benefit of a shifting district is that you have to reintroduce yourself to people and learn about them and understand,” Neal said. “People really want the same thing. They want safety, they want security, they want their children to do better than they did.”

The endorsements the two candidates have racked up are also telling. The biggest names in the party are backing Neal in the election — like Gov. Andy Beshear and Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg.

Prominent community figures like Metro Council members Shameka Parrish-Wright and Jecorey Arthur and Russell community organizer Jackie Floyd have expressed support for Scott.

Neal has been more successful in fundraising, although Scott has been able to match him in spending, if not overall cash raised — Scott has spent about $26,400 while Neal has spent roughly the same amount but with $65,700 sitting in reserve.

Fight to fill Herron’s seat

The current state representative for House District 42, Keturah Herron, is making the leap to the state Senate this year, looking to fill the seat of the retiring Sen. Denise Harper Angel. Although she is running unopposed, the seat she’s leaving behind is contested by three Democratic candidates — and no Republican decided to join the fray.

Jonathan Musselwhite, Jack Walker and Joshua Watkins are all trying to introduce themselves to members of the district before primary day and represent distinct interests in the race.

Musselwhite, who previously ran unsuccessfully for Metro Council, said he wants to represent the voices of working Kentuckians, advocating strongly for labor unions. He says the Democratic party hasn’t always shown up for small unions, for traditionally unorganized industries.

“We can show [lawmakers] that the world's not going to end if you pay somebody $15 an hour, or take away the ability to arbitrarily fire them,” Musselwhite said.

Watkins meanwhile touts his government service as his biggest boon. Watkins currently serves as the director of strategic initiatives for Louisville Metro Government, having previously worked for the city’s Vacant and Public Property Administration and the Office for Safe and Health Neighborhoods. Watkins said he wants to bring the specialized knowledge of how the city runs to Frankfort.

“The first thing I heard when I knocked on the door was, ‘Yay, another politician,’” Watkins said. “I said, ‘No, I'm a public servant. That is very, very different than someone who just wins in a popularity contest.’”

Walker did not respond to an interview request from Kentucky Public Radio. He has served on the Kentucky Democratic Party State Central Executive Committee and managed several state legislative campaigns before his own. He is also director of operations for Burger Boy and Burger Girl Diners. According to his website, his top priorities are education and public safety.

Musselwhite and Watkins say they are campaigning fiercely to make their names known across the district, but also recognize that it’s a fairly small pool of people who come out to the primaries. The district hasn’t even held a primary since 2018, when only about 5,800 people came out to the polls. In 2012, only 3,600 people voted in the Democratic primary.

Musselwhite said it means fewer people that he needs to address.

“You're talking about some 20,000 registered Democrats, that sounds pretty daunting. But when you start talking about 8,000-9,000 likely primary voters, that sounds a lot more doable,” Musselwhite said. “We've knocked over 7,000 doors at this point.”

Watkins said having a competitive primary might be a challenge for the candidates, but it’s what the process is supposed to look like.

“It is really great for the democratic process to have a primary like mine,” Watkins said.

Other Democratic primary challenges to watch

  • Three Louisville Democrats are running to try and capture the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher, in House District 29. The winner will face off against the winner of an equally crowded Republican primary. Bratcher decided to run for a Metro Council seat instead this year. It is the only race for the Statehouse this year with a competitive primary in both parties. 
  • Former state Rep. Mary Lou Marizian, who decided not to run for reelection in 2022 because she was drawn into the same district as another Democrat, is facing off against William “Rick” Adams for the 41st House District. Current Rep. Josie Raymond chose to instead run for a Metro Council seat this year.
  • Ruth Ann Palumbo in Lexington announced she would not run for reelection this year. In her place, three Democratic candidates are trying to capture the seat – including her son, Jamie Palumbo. Joshua Buckman and Anne Donworth are set to face off against him.

Find out information about candidates in your district using the 2024 KPR Primary Voting Guide.

Correction: A sentence has been removed from the article. Walker has not previously run to be Louisville’s mayor.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.