By Steve Bittenbender
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - A Democrat in the Kentucky House of Representatives said on Thursday he was joining the Republicans, a move that could spell trouble for Democratic hopes of keeping their grip on the last legislative chamber they control in the U.S. South.
State Representative Denny Butler's decision to run for re-election as a Republican means Democrats hold just a 53-47 edge in the state House. His announcement came just two weeks after the Democrats lost the Kentucky governor's race for only the second time since 1971.
It is the most Kentucky House seats Republicans have held since they had a 55-45 majority in 1921. The party controls the state Senate.
"For me, the bottom line is it shows how vulnerable the Democratic majority in the House is," Kentucky political analyst Al Cross said of Butler's switch.
Butler told Republican floor leader Jeff Hoover of his switch on Thursday morning, according to a statement posted by the caucus. Hoover said in a tweet there was no deal made to get Butler to change parties.
Cross, an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky, said Butler came from a longtime Democratic family - his father served in the state House for 17 years – that represented blue- collar residents who have drifted away from the party as it embraced liberal stances on social issues.
Cross said those working-class voters helped propel Republicans such as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Governor-elect Matt Bevin to victories in successive years.
The Republicans still have work to do. Two Republican House members won statewide offices and will need to resign next month. Special elections will be held for those seats.
Cross said the Republicans had a good chance of getting other Democrats to switch sides, even before next November's election, when all 100 seats are up.
"My guess is, if the Republicans got to 50, they can probably get to 51," he said.
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Cooney)