RUSSELL, Ky. (AP) — The job no one wants at the Marvin Meredith Youth Basketball League is the concession stand, where your back's to the court, unable to see the kids play. But it's perfect for Tony Quillen, a Kentucky House candidate with an Appalachian twang who has spent 18 years as one of the few Republicans on the Greenup County Fiscal Court.
He plops a bucket on the table, his name duct-taped to the side, and fills it with bubble gum and Tootsie rolls to be given away for a handshake and an introduction. "Right there is the centerpiece of my election," he said, campaigning ahead of a March 8 special election for the state House of Representatives. "I have passed out over 500,000 pieces of bubble gum and Tootsie Rolls in 18 years."
One Tootsie Roll at a time, Quillen has a far bigger quest now than winning local re-election. He's helping fellow Republicans seeking to take down the nearly century-old Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives. He's one of four GOP candidates in special elections, and if Republicans win all four, it would force a 50-50 tie in the last Southern legislative chamber still commanded by Democrats.
The Kentucky House is a throwback to a Democratic Party hard to find these days: conservative, mostly rural Democrats who preach small government and state's rights. It's difficult to distinguish now between Kentucky Democratic and Republican candidates, with both claiming the "pro-family" and "pro-business" mantles.
Regardless of the results on Tuesday, all 100 House seats are up for re-election in November.
Bereft of a Kentucky House majority since 1920, Republicans hope their fortunes will change soon. The special elections around the state include a farmer, a fighter pilot and a roller rink owner. But in Greenup County — in the shadow of an idled steel mill on the Ohio River — Quillen and Democrat Lew Nicholls are locked in one of the closest races.
Most candidates are political newcomers. But Quillen and Nicholls have each held local elected office more than a decade, Quillen as a county commissioner and Nicholls as a circuit court judge.
With Ohio and West Virginia nearby, the rural county is a labor union stronghold. Ironically that means Quillen's bid — and which party ultimately controls the House — could hinge on union politics. Both candidates oppose state Republican efforts to make Kentucky a right-to-work state.
That's a tough stand for Quillen. Anti-union legislation is a cornerstone of the GOP agenda in Kentucky, and a Republican House takeover would improve its chances considerably. Greenup County has a hefty union presence, including at the nearby AK Steel's Ashland Works mill. The mill temporarily suspended some operations in January, leaving nearly 600 workers without a paycheck for months.
Quillen is a former nuclear scientist at an Ohio plant making enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. He won elections for years as a Republican in the heavily Democratic county, helped by a father with a colorful service station where residents often trade gossip. Nicholls, the son of a former state legislator, is an ex-Army officer who spent time in Germany working with nuclear warheads.
"I had at my disposal more firepower than existed in all World War II," Nicholls said. "I learned responsibility."
Both men are running small town campaigns.
But higher stakes have attracted outside spending, disrupting local politics. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group bent on electing local Republicans, paid for a website — nichollsneglect.com — criticizing Nicholls for "letting a convicted child killer out of jail after only six months." The website surprised both men, and state Republicans swiftly condemned it.
"A negative ad like what they are doing is not helpful because (voters) see (Nicholls) at the grocery store, they go to church with him," said state Rep. Jonathan Shell, campaign chairman for the Kentucky House Republican Caucus.
For years, Republicans have verged on House control, then stumbled. In 2014, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell won re-election in a landslide, but fellow Republicans couldn't pick up one state House seat. That year, most Republicans focused on one issue: passing a "right-to-work" law to make mandatory union memberships illegal.
Many here are spooked by West Virginia, where Republicans took state legislative control and passed a right-to-work law and repealed the prevailing wage — meaning lower wages for construction workers on public projects. "It would probably bankrupt our hall," said Chase McGlone, a union electrician in the county.
Quillen said he has met with new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a strong right-to-work advocate, and told him he wouldn't vote to eliminate the prevailing wage or pass a right-to-work law.
"I know they will go forward with it at some point, but it won't be on my (vote)," he said.