GOP wins special election in Kentucky, extending streak

GOP wins special election in Kentucky, extending streak

Voters in the heart of Appalachia on Tuesday picked a Republican to fill a state Senate seat previously held by Democrats, growing the Republican majority in the chamber — and extending a GOP winning streak in Democratic-held districts. 

Republican Phillip Wheeler beat out Democrat Darrell Pugh in Kentucky's 31st district on Tuesday by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

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Wheeler will replace former state Sen. Ray Jones, a Democrat who resigned his seat after winning election as Pike County's judge-executive in November.

The district reflects the remnants of historically Democratic coal country that, over the course of the last two decades, has slowly inched to the right as unions have lost power and the coal industry has struggled. More than 6 in 10 voters in the district are registered Democrats, and Jones never had trouble holding his seat — even though President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE won almost 80 percent of the vote there in 2016.

Both candidates tried to make the race about something more than themselves. Pugh called the race a referendum on Gov. Matt Bevin (R), whose low poll numbers bedevil Republicans ahead of his reelection bid this November. Wheeler wanted to talk more about Trump, who remains popular in the state — so much so that even Pugh acknowledged the president's role.

"Trump is still really positive here. I don't know. I've already called and congratulated Phillip," Pugh told WYMT-TV late Tuesday.

Kentucky Republicans cast the win as a victory over "the extreme liberal values of Democrats like Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiLawmakers, social media users praise photo of Pelosi confronting Trump Trump turns Pelosi's 'meltdown' criticism around: 'She is a very sick person' Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses MORE, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaButtigieg tweeted support for 'Medicare for All' in 2018 Brent Budowsky: To Bush and Obama — speak out on Trump Graham on Syria: Trump appears 'hell-bent' on repeating Obama's mistakes in Iraq MORE," said state GOP Chairman J. McCauley Brown. Brown said Wheeler would be "a forceful advocate for Eastern Kentucky."

Wheeler's win marks the fourth special election this year in which a Republican has won a seat previously held by a Democratic state legislator. Last month, Republicans picked up a state House seat and a state Senate seat in two Democratic-held districts in Connecticut. Earlier in February, Republicans won a rural Minnesota state Senate district vacated by a Democrat.

Three of the four Republican wins have come in districts that Trump won in 2016. But the results are a reversal from 2017 and 2018, when Democrats picked up dozens of Republican-held seats in special elections in districts Trump carried by huge margins.

Voters head to the polls in Maine, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Tennessee to fill legislative vacancies next week.