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Kentucky House votes to remove governor's choice in filling Senate vacancies

The GOP-dominated Kentucky House voted to remove any role of the state’s governor in deciding who would occupy a U.S. Senate seat if a vacancy occurred.

The Republican-dominated Kentucky House voted Monday to remove any role for the state's Democratic governor in deciding who would occupy a U.S. Senate seat if a vacancy occurred in the home state of 82-year-old Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The legislation calls for a special election to fill any Senate vacancy from the Bluegrass State. The measure won overwhelming House passage to advance to the Senate, where the GOP also holds a supermajority.

Republican House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy has said his bill has nothing to do with McConnell, but instead reflects his long-running policy stance on how an empty Senate seat should be filled.


The House action comes several days after McConnell announced he will step down from his longtime leadership position in November. The decision set off a wave of speculation back home in Kentucky about the future of his seat.

In his speech from the Senate floor, McConnell left open the possibility that he might seek another term in 2026, declaring at one point: "I’m not going anywhere anytime soon."

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear — who won a resounding reelection victory last November over a McConnell protege — has denounced the Senate succession bill as driven by partisanship.

"If we are just dominated by trying to create a result of what letter someone would have behind their name if appointed, then we are not performing or engaging in good government," the governor said last week. "Last November, people said ‘knock it off. We are tired of the rank partisanship, and we don’t want a candidate or a General Assembly that just sees ‘Team R’ or ‘Team D,’ or red or blue.’"

The governor could veto the measure if it reaches his desk, but Republicans have used the political muscle from their supermajority status to easily override his past vetoes on a range of issues.

Beshear has already seen his influence over selecting a senator greatly diminished by GOP lawmakers.

In 2021, the legislature stripped the governor of his independent power to temporarily fill a Senate seat. That measure limits a governor to choosing from a three-name list provided by party leaders from the same party as the senator who formerly held the seat. Both of Kentucky's U.S. senators are Republicans. The measure became law after GOP lawmakers overrode Beshear's veto.

On Monday, Rudy said his bill would treat a U.S. Senate vacancy like that of a vacancy for a congressional or legislative seat in Kentucky — by holding a special election to fill the seat. The House tacked on an emergency clause, meaning the bill would take effect immediately if enacted into law.

Rep. Derrick Graham, the top-ranking House Democrat, said he has consistently opposed efforts to weaken or strip the governor's authority in filling a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

"We have looked at the history of it, and it's always been the governor" making the selection, he said. "And I support the idea that the governor should have the responsibility of selecting who that senator will be until the election for that particular seat."

Rudy referred to McConnell last week as a "great friend and a political mentor," and credited the state’s senior senator for playing an important role in the GOP’s rise to power in the Kentucky legislature.

Rudy introduced the bill on Feb. 21 and it cleared a House committee a day after McConnell's announcement in Washington. Rudy said last week the bill had nothing to do with McConnell, but instead was something he's talked about for more than a decade since the conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for crimes that included seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.

At the time, Republicans were stuck in the Kentucky House minority. The GOP claimed the House majority — cementing the party's total control of the legislature — after its tidal wave of victories in the 2016 election. Rudy filed a bill calling for a special election to fill a Senate vacancy in 2021, but Republicans instead opted to go with the other measure limiting a governor to choose from a three-name list.

"I still think mine was a better version and that’s why I filed it again this year," Rudy said last week. "It has nothing to do with Sen. McConnell. It just deals with vacancies."

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