- Associated Press - Thursday, November 3, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - As Republicans try to take over the Kentucky House of Representatives - the only legislative chamber in the South they don’t control - they are getting some help from an unlikely place: a retired homicide detective from one of Louisville’s most prominent Democratic families.

State Rep. Denny Butler likely would have been unopposed for a third term in the state legislature this year. But Butler shocked everyone - including his family - when he switched parties to become a Republican last November. Now he has drawn a strong challenge from Democrat and labor attorney McKenzie Cantrell, turning the race into a tossup.

Republicans need four more seats to win control of the House for the first time since 1920. A takeover would complete a Republican sweep at the statehouse and give Gov. Matt Bevin a clearer path to continue his aggressive overhaul of state government.

But while most Republican candidates across Kentucky are touting their party, Butler is running on his name. His father held the seat for 18 years as a Democrat, and his sister is a Democratic member of the Louisville Metro Council. That makes Butler valuable to the GOP. For years Republicans were beaten by Kentucky Democrats who distanced themselves from their national party and won based on relationships with voters.

“It would have been hard for me to vote against Denny no matter what. I know him,” said Paul Schuchard, a lifelong Democrat who knew Butler’s father. “I know he is trying to do what is right.”

Other Democrats feel betrayed.

“He took my money, he took my vote, he took my support and then he turned around and switched parties right in the middle of the term,” said former Kentucky AFL-CIO political director Ray Crider, who campaigned for Butler and his late father. “I know his father would not approve of what he’s done.”

Butler was one of two Democrats who switched parties in 2015, but his decision carried the most risk. While Bevin won 106 of Kentucky’s 120 counties in 2015, the Republican governor lost Butler’s legislative district by 15 percentage points, underscoring its Democratic leanings. Then there’s Donald Trump, the brash GOP presidential nominee who is boosting Republican candidates in Kentucky’s Appalachian mountains but will most likely hurt Butler’s chances in a district that President Barack Obama won with 54 percent of the vote in 2012.

Butler wouldn’t say which presidential candidate has his vote, saying he will “look at who I think will protect the country and has the best Supreme Court nominations.” And he has vowed to not change his policy positions, including opposing so-called “right-to-work” bills that would not allow companies to require workers to join a labor union as a condition of employment.

Cantrell noted right-to-work is a top priority of Bevin and House Republicans. A Republican majority in the House would make it easier for them to pass it.

“If you vote Republican and Republicans take control of the house, then Bevin is going to get to do whatever he wants,” she said. “Labor unions and worker advocates across the state are blaming Republicans for trying to destroy unions and wages in this state. Why did you side with them?”

Butler said he switched parties because the House Democratic leadership denied his request to audit a fund that’s supposed to be used to train police officers but has instead been used to balance the state budget. Butler also said he became disgusted with bad behavior in his own party.

“There is a culture of corruption in Frankfort involving Democrat leaders,” Butler said. “Every filter that the Democrats had on every piece of legislation was, ‘Will this keep me in power and can I raise money off of it?’”

Cantrell, a Tennessee native who came to Kentucky to get a law degree from the University of Louisville, said Butler’s criticisms of the party have little to do with her.

“I’m running against Bevin, he’s running against Democrats,” she said. “He has more of a relationship with those individuals than I do.”

She questioned his motives for switching parties shortly after Republicans captured the governor’s mansion and four of the six constitutional offices in 2015.

“If (a Democrat) is elected governor, is Denny Butler a Republican today?” she asked. “Because I think that that answer gauges a lot of some of the political opportunism that plays into this party switch and into this race.”

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