By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
BEREA – It was supposed to be easier for Democratic Congressman Ben Chandler this time around.
After squeaking out a 648-vote win over Republican challenger Andy Barr during the 2010 Republican wave, the 6th District was redrawn, adding Democratic registered voters in the east and shaving off some reliably Republican areas in the southwestern portion of the district.
But it hasn’t worked out that way – the race this year between the same candidates appears to be close, very close.
“It’s kind of like two years ago,” when the race tightened noticeably toward the end, Barr said this weekend. “We feel like we have even more momentum this time than two years ago.”
Chandler said he’s always expected a tight race, although earlier in the campaign he touted internal polling he said showed him with comfortable double-digit leads.
“We expected all along it would tighten as it came down to the wire,” Chandler said Thursday as he handed out food items to children in the lunch line at Silver Creek Elementary in Berea.
While Barr was busy late last week addressing civic groups, one might wonder why Chandler was spending time at an elementary school where most of the people he met are too young to vote.
“They’ll go home and tell Mom and Dad,” said Karen Farmer, a full-time substitute at the school. Farmer said she is registered Republican and her husband works for a utility company, making coal a key issue for her.
It’s an issue Barr has tried to make central to the campaign, although there are no active mines in the district. But many coal interests live in central Kentucky, and those newly added eastern counties have ties to coal. Perhaps more importantly, coal interests have donated heavily to Barr’s campaign.
“Oh yes, coal is important to me,” Farmer said. Who declined to say how she’ll vote. “Because my husband works for the electrical co-op and as they like to say: coal keeps the lights on.”
While Barr has emphasized coal – and a vote by Chandler for a “cap-and-trade” bill in the U.S. House that never got out of the Senate, Chandler has tried to link Barr with Republican plans to scale back Medicare and Social Security.
Chandler said he voted for the cap-and-trade bill because it contained funding for “clean coal” research he said would have benefited the industry, and he says he’s supported other coal friendly legislation. But Barr has hit him with ads – along with others paid for by outside Republican and coal groups – saying he and President Barack Obama have “declared war on coal” and “devastated the industry.”
Chandler responds by saying Barr supports efforts by Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan to “voucher-ize” Medicare and attacking Barr’s integrity with an ad focusing on Barr’s failure to disclose on state government job applications an arrest while in college for using a fake ID when he was on vacation in Florida.
Theresia Lewis, a second-grade teacher at Silver Creek, said the negative ads by the two candidates haven’t persuaded her how to vote.
“Not particularly,” she said during a lunch break at the school when asked if the ads had any effect. “I know how all that propaganda works. I don’t believe everything I hear.”
Lewis’ grandfather was a coal miner and coal is an important issue to her – but so are Medicare and Social Security, funding for education “and also the moral issues.” She is registered Republican but described herself as a moderate on social issues and said her vote will likely be decided by how the candidates talk about education.
“Education is my livelihood,” Lewis said, adding she has sufficient experience and tenure that the level of support for education may not affect her personally, but she worries about younger teachers’ futures and she worries about the education of the young children she teaches.
“But at this point, I’m not really decided,” Lewis said.
Lewis is one of the voters Barr and Chandler will be talking to Monday night when they meet for their only face-to-face debate on Kentucky Education Television – along with independent candidate Randolph Vance.
Barr has criticized Chandler for avoiding debates.
Chandler responds that relatively few people attend the local debates Barr wanted but the KET debate will be broadcast throughout the central Kentucky district.
It’s likely the two will try to hammer home their campaign themes: coal and government debt from Barr and Medicare cuts proposed by Ryan and Republicans and his own support for the auto bailout from Chandler who notes there are 50,000 more auto-related jobs in Kentucky than coal jobs.
Barr criticizes the bailout because it used government funding to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat while going through bankruptcy. He said such financing could have been provided by the government without “taking an ownership position” in the companies – although that’s hard to distinguish from what the Obama plan actually did.
Chandler said he was asked by Toyota – which employs about 8,000 auto workers at its Georgetown plant – to support the bill because manufacturers like Toyota and Ford, which weren’t part of the bailout, feared their supply chains would collapse of GM and Chrysler went under.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.