UPDATED AT 9:30 P.M.
FRANKFORT — Democrats chipped away at Republican control of the state Senate Tuesday as Democrat Robin Webb narrowly defeated Republican Jack Ditty in a special election Tuesday for a vacant seat in northeastern Kentucky.
Republicans now hold a 20-17 margin in the Senate, with one independent member, bringing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear closer to his goal of allowing slot machines at horse racetracks.
Unofficial results in the 18th Senate District — Mason, Bracken, Robertson, Carter, Greenup and Lewis counties — show Webb collecting 8,684 votes to Ditty’s 8,402. Independent Guy Gibbons garnered 953 votes.
Ditty took four of six counties, but Webb won in her home county of Carter by almost 1,200 votes and took Robertson County by 26.
“The people who know me best voted for me,” Webb said. “I feel validated after Republicans threw everything at me.”
State GOP Chairman Steve Robertson called it “odd” that Republican-heavy Lewis County gave Ditty only a 112-vote margin. He noted that some voters there complained about questionable exit polling and said he will talk to Ditty about a possible recanvass.
Ditty said he was “proud” to be in the race and “came a long way, starting 20 percent down in the polls.” He declined to say whether he might seek the seat again in 2010.
Webb’s campaign consultant, Dale Emmons, said the difference in the race was Webb’s experience as a state Representative from Grayson since 1999.
Beshear is trying to wrest control of the Senate from President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who has been a major obstacle to the governor’s efforts to help the horse industry by expanding gambling in the state.
State Democratic Party Chairman Charles Moore said in a statement that Webb will “help stop David Williams and the rest of the roadblock Republicans.”
Efforts to reach Williams for comment were not successful.
In a statement, Beshear congratulated Webb “on winning a hard-fought, hard-run campaign.”
Webb joined a majority in the state House this summer to back a bill to allow video lottery terminals at the race tracks but the measure died in the Senate budget committee.
Ditty, a Greenup County dermatologist making his first bid for public office, opposed expanded gambling.
Webb’s victory will have “a huge impact” on the Senate, said Senate Minority Caucus Chair Johnny Ray Turner, D-Drift.
Beshear and his fellow Democrats are hopeful they can add more Democrats to the Senate to give their party a controlling majority.
Another option for them is to come close enough in numbers to the Republicans to oust Williams as leader with support from a few Republicans.
The Senate race, which featured attack ads against both candidates, drew statewide interest.
The Family Foundation, a conservative organization based in Lexington, held four “informational” meetings in churches in the district to talk about societal ills associated with expanded gambling.
Meanwhile, an independent issues committee made up of horse industry leaders ran radio and TV ads in the race critical of Ditty’s business practices.
Several political heavyweights also campaigned in the district, including Beshear, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville, former Democratic governors and various state legislators.
Turnout in the contest was higher than expected at 23.6 percent. The largely rural district has 45,473 registered Democrats, 26,924 Republicans and 3,993 others.
Beshear called the special election on July 15, the same day Republican Charlie Borders resigned from the seat to take a Beshear-appointed job on the state Public Service Commission.
The state Board of Elections will likely certify Tuesday’s votes on Friday, said Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
The winner can be sworn into office as soon as the votes are certified and serve the remainder of Border’s term, which ends Dec. 31, 2010.
Grayson also said a special election will be needed to fill the House vacancy created by Webb’s election to the Senate.
Webb represents the 96th House District, which includes Carter and Lewis counties.