GOP-led legislation eliminates Democratic governor’s involvement in Kentucky Senate vacancy

Kentucky senators granted final approval Thursday to a bill that would deprive the state’s Democratic governor of any participation in selecting someone to fill a United States Senate seat if a vacancy occurred in the home state of 82-year-old Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

The measure calls for a special election to fill any Senate vacancies in the Bluegrass State. The special election winner would retain the seat for the balance of the unexpired term.

“So it would be a direct voice of the people determining how the vacancy is filled,” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said as he introduced the bill to his colleagues.

Following a brief discussion, the state Senate voted 34-3 to submit the bill to Governor Andy Beshear. The governor has criticized the proposal as partisan, but the GOP supermajority legislature could overturn a veto when lawmakers reassemble in mid-April for the final two days of the current session.

GOP-led legislation eliminates Democratic governor's involvement in Kentucky Senate vacancy

The bill’s primary proponent is Republican House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy. He has stated that the proposal has nothing to do with McConnell and instead reflects his long-standing philosophical position on how an open Senate seat should be filled.

Rudy calls McConnell a “great friend and a political mentor,” and he credits the state’s senior senator with helping the Republican Party gain control of the Kentucky legislature.

Rudy has stated that his plan would treat a Senate vacancy in the same way that a congressional or legislative seat in Kentucky would be filled: by conducting a special election. The measure has an emergency clause, which means that if passed, it will go into force immediately.

Rudy filed the bill in February, and it passed a House committee the day after McConnell announced his resignation from his long-standing Senate leadership position in November. The action sparked widespread debate in Kentucky regarding the future of his seat.

GOP-led legislation eliminates Democratic governor's involvement in Kentucky Senate vacancy

In his statement from the Senate floor, McConnell hinted that he would seek another term in 2026, saying at one point: “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Aides claimed McConnell’s statement had nothing to do with his health. Last year, the senator had a concussion from a fall, and twice in public, his face suddenly froze while speaking.

Rudy has stated that he has discussed changing the way a Senate vacancy is filled for more than a decade, following the conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for offenses including attempting to sell an appointment to Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. Rudy’s district in far western Kentucky bordered Illinois.

Beshear, who won a decisive reelection victory over a McConnell acolyte last November, has already seen his authority in selecting a senator significantly reduced by Republican lawmakers.

In 2021, the legislature abolished the governor’s unilateral authority to fill a Senate seat. That measure requires a governor to select from a three-name list provided by party leaders from the same party as the senator who previously held the seat. Kentucky’s two U.S. senators are Republicans. The bill became law after Republican lawmakers overrode Beshear’s veto.

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