The scenes at PeeWee’s Place in Crescent Springs as results came in from Tuesday’s primary election were celebratory. Republican Congressman Thomas Massie, expecting a win in the GOP primary, announced that he would be holding his afterparty at the venue. As election night drew closer, other candidates of similar political leanings announced they would be joining him.
While Massie and company were hoping to have positive results in the state legislative races, they probably didn’t predict the sweeping results that saw aligned “liberty” challengers take three statehouse seats away from incumbent Reps. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger), Sal Santoro (R-Union), and Ed Massey (R-Union), all of whom chair influential committees in the House of Representatives. Santoro challenger Marianne Proctor and Koenig challenger Steve Doan were among those joining in the revelry at PeeWee’s. Massey lost out to challenger Steve Rawlings.
“I firmly believe that I generally represent the views of the citizens of the district and Republicans in general,” Koenig said. “However, we have this terrible habit in Northern Kentucky of having terribly low turnout, and that’s what happened.”
Liberty candidates are members of the Republican Party that eschew some of the typical Republican priorities of infrastructure and business. They align more with libertarian values of limited government, lower taxes, and lower spending.
While it was a victorious night for the challengers, Republicans across the state might be wondering how they lost three important House committee chairs and how they could’ve done things differently.
Many were keeping an eye on the Koenig race. The Erlanger Republican chairs the Licensing and Occupations Committee. Elected in 2006, Koenig has been instrumental in pushing sports betting in the state. He failed in the dying hours of the 2022 General Assembly, but his lack of presence in the statehouse in 2023 might change how sports betting is handled in the legislature.
In other words, somebody will have to pick up the torch.
“I’m sure someone will carry the baton for it, and maybe they’ll be better than I was,” Koenig said.
In August of 2021, Doan was named to an empty seat on the Erlanger City Council. Less than a year later, he’s heading to the general election for the 69th district against Democrat Chris Brown.
“My message that we needed change resonated with the people of the district,” Doan said. “I look forward to advancing conservative principles in Frankfort after I win the general election in November.”
In this past session, Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, adopted new legislative maps through the redistricting process which follows the decennial census. Koenig saw a lot of changes to his district boundaries, impacting his electoral prospects in a contested primary, according to Kenton County Democratic Party Vice Chair Dave Meyer.
“It appears that some of the areas where he historically had done well – the Fort Mitchell area – was removed from his district, and that cost him support,” Meyer said.
Koenig received the fewest votes of the NKY trio who lost their races Tuesday night. He had 1,179; Santoro had 1,955; and Massey had 1,227. But Koenig only lost to Doan by 190 votes, with the challenger racking up 1,369. Santoro also lost a close race with his challenger Proctor amassing 1,955 votes. However, Massey lost quite handily to Rawlings, who stacked up 2,695 votes.
“The core of Koenig’s support in the old 69th was redistricted out and put into Banta’s district,” Meyer said, referencing Ft. Mitchell Republican Kim Banta whose 63rd District was moved to include more urban parts of the area, including pieces of Covington. “And he had new folks in his district who weren’t excited, didn’t know him, and weren’t interested in turning out.”
Republicans must’ve known they were going to open themselves up for vulnerabilities in these Northern Kentucky seats, according to Meyer. But, they might not have known it would happen so quickly.
“My guess is that they are surprised by how quickly those challenges materialized and by how successful they proved to be,” Meyer said.
Ryan Salzman, a Northern Kentucky University political science professor and Bellevue city councilman, said that in an election, everything matters, and this might have been the perfect storm.
“When you’re losing precincts that have been very favorable to you, would be considered maybe more moderate, conservative districts, that absolutely matters,” Salzman said. “I never saw or heard that there was intent by Republican leadership to put Adam Koenig in jeopardy. I do think that they may be regretting having taken those away, but they probably thought that he was safe when they were redistricting in that way.”
Salzman also pointed out that Doan, who previously worked in Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration, is quite politically savvy.
Another piece in this puzzle is that the race in the 69th was particularly nasty, with the group Kentucky Liberty attacking Koenig with direct mailer ads. There were also attack ads from Doan accusing Koenig of being a “liberal.”
“I think that the low turnout was driven not only by redistricting but by the negativity of the race, as we all understand, turns some voters off and encourages them or causes them to opt-out of the voting system,” Meyer said.
Voters in Boone County play huge role in NKY Statehouse shift
Liberty candidates in Boone County saw an unprecedented level of success, claiming those three statehouse seats (Koenig’s 69th District is in both Kenton and Boone counties) and also easily ousting an incumbent county commissioner.
Boone County Republican Party Chairman Chet Hand, who orchestrated a takeover of the local party during a reorganization process, solidly ousted Commissioner Charles Kenner in Tuesday’s primary.
Rawlings, who topped incumbent Massey in the 66th District, told LINK nky reporter Kaitlin Gebby during the publication’s live election results show that he and other liberty candidates pooled their resources to take down what have been characterized as establishment Republicans.
“Many of the candidates ran together,” Rawlings said. “We got to pool resources, meet together and strategize. We beat the incumbents at the ground game, and we started out early, hit a lot of homes, hit tons of homes.”
Rawlings also said the candidates heard feedback that people wanted ordinary citizens and not politicians. Another theme they heard was that Boone County voters were not going to vote for the incumbents.
“We expected to win,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings, Hand, and Proctor ran on a “Drain the Swamp” message similar to former President Donald Trump’s successful 2016 campaign.
“I think that they were persistent in their messaging,” Salzman said. “And the people I’ve talked to who live in Boone County seem to indicate that they were very persistent in their messaging. And so, I think that persistence is probably what ended up leading to their victories.”
Changes to the Northern Kentucky Caucus
With Koenig, Massey, and Santoro now in their final months in office, the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus will look different next year in the statehouse.
There are Democratic challengers awaiting in November for some of Tuesday’s victorious Republicans, but in Northern Kentucky there have been only a pair of Democrats serving in the caucus for most of this century. Both Reps. Buddy Wheatley (D-Covington) and Rachel Roberts (D-Newport) are being challenged by Republicans in newly drawn districts this fall.
The ouster of three local representatives who accumulated important roles in the Statehouse could pose a challenge to the region’s fledgling influence in Frankfort.
“At no time in my life and quite possibly ever had Northern Kentucky ever had as much influence in the House of Representatives, and that is gone,” Koenig said.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Boone County becomes a trend-setter for Republican politics in the area, Salzman said, and whether this shift also happens in Campbell and Kenton counties.
“Is it an ice cutter for the rest of these candidates in Campbell County and Kenton County? Or is Boone County going to start to separate itself?” Salzman asked rhetorically. “One, because of the policies and the candidates that they advance, but also just because they are getting large, and they can kind of be their own part of Northern Kentucky, as well.”
Northern Kentucky will also have a new representative in the 68th District after Rep. Joseph Fischer decided to run for the Kentucky Supreme Court. On the Republican side, Mike Clines moved forward Tuesday night to face Democrat Kelly Jones after winning a three-way GOP primary. In that Campbell Co. district, Clines’s opponent included a liberty-aligned candidate in Mirna Eads, who finished a distant third.
The 24th Senate District will also have a new legislator in the fall due to incumbent Republican Wil Schroder not seeking reelection. Shelley Funke Frommeyer beat out liberty candidate Jessica Neal and third-place finisher Chris Robinson. Frommeyer faces Democrat Rene Heinrich.