By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
Power, they say, abhors a vacuum. There’s presently a big vacuum in the leadership of the Republican led Kentucky state Senate and a growing number of Republican senators want to help fill that vacuum.
With the resignation and departure of Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, other senators are scrambling not just to fill that position but others.
Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has declared his intention to become Williams’ successor and he’s been joined by Bob Leeper, I-Paducah. Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, and Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, have announced they want to succeed Stivers as Majority Leader.
Now others are announcing plans to challenge current Republican leaders.
Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said he will challenge Majority Caucus Chair Dan Seum, R-Louisville.
One reason Bowen is seeking a leadership role, he said Tuesday, is the absence of leaders from western Kentucky.
“That’s at least 50 percent of it,” Bowen said. “There is a dearth of leadership from west of I-65 in both chambers. We don’t need a cluster of leadership from just one particular geographic area.”
That would be eastern Kentucky — the home region of Stivers, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook.
Bowen’s second reason is his sense that it’s time for a change in Senate leadership. Many from both sides of the aisle have predicted a “different tone” in the state Senate following the departure of Williams who often clashed with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and the Democratic House as well as Democratic senators.
“I think it’s just a season of change,” Bowen said.
Leeper would also pose both a change in Senate tradition as well as giving western Kentucky a key leadership role.
Leeper is from about as far west in the state as you can get and still reside this side of the Mississippi River. He originally ran for and was elected to the Senate as a Democrat, then switched registration and was re-elected as a Republican.
He later changed his registration once again, this time to independent and still won re-election, though he continued to caucus with Republicans.
Leeper is respected on both sides of the aisle for his candor and sincerity. He gets along with his colleagues from both parties. But it might be difficult for Republicans to vote for someone outside their party.
Leeper concedes that may be a psychological hurdle for some Republicans and he’s specifically addressed the question with other senators whose votes he’s seeking.
“Some are comfortable with it, some aren’t,” Leeper said of the idea of voting for an independent.
“But I’m as conservative as anyone in the party, I’m as conservative as or more conservative than anyone in the caucus,” he said.
Leeper said he isn’t “slating” with candidates for any of the other offices. Nor has Leeper heard a third candidate might enter the race for Senate President, hoping to offer himself or herself as a compromise between Stivers and himself.
Givens said he remains committed to running for Majority Leader and said he’s “very well pleased with the reactions I’ve gotten from caucus members.”
He also said he has “tremendous respect” for Thayer and is looking “forward to all of these leadership races being over so we can begin to come together as caucus and begin doing the people’s work.”
Challengers to Republican Whip Carroll Gibson, R-Leitchfield, seem to be lining up. Sen. Jimmy Higdon, D-Lebanon, confirmed Tuesday he will seek that post.
There were also reports that Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, and Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, are considering challenging Gibson. CNHI left messages seeking comment from both but was unable to reach either man by press time.
The current President Pro Tempore, Sen. Katie Kratz Stine, R-Southgate, plans to seek re-election and so far no one has publicly announced an intention to challenge her.
Even if no others enter leadership races, there are still implications for other senators and committee assignments. Two key committees are presently without chairmen. The chairmen of the Education Committee (Ken Winters, R-Murray) and Judiciary (Tom Jensen, R-London) did not seek re-election.
Judiciary presented a special dilemma. While there is no requirement its chair be an attorney, traditionally an attorney from the majority party holds the chair. The committee handles often times controversial and critical legislation and its chairman usually works hand in hand with leadership.
After Williams left, Stivers and Stine were the only Republican attorneys left in the Senate before last Tuesday’s election. But two Republican attorneys, Stan Humphries and Whitney Westerfield, won election Tuesday.
And two Republican attorneys, Rep. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, and David Cross, R-Albany, are seeking nomination for a special election to succeed Williams as Senator from the 16th District. (The district is heavily Republican and Democrats aren’t given much chance of capturing the seat.)
Whether he wins or loses his quest to become Senate President, Leeper is unlikely to continue as chairman of the powerful Appropriations and Revenue Committee. It’s hard to envision Stivers rewarding Leeper with that job after Leeper challenged his election.
The offices of President and President Pro Tem are constitutional offices elected by the body rather than by their party. But as a matter of practice, the majority party settles on one candidate for each office after internal elections and possesses enough votes to elect those even without support from the minority party.
Republicans will gather Dec. 13 and 14 to elect their officers and candidates.
RONNIE ELLISs writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.