Richmond, KY – GOP voters will wrestle with a question that continually challenges party strategists and political scientists. Which is better? Nominating a candidate who represents the party's core voters or picking a candidate who might appeal to the average voter. University of Kentucky political scientist Donald Gross says the question is especially relevant this spring.
"It's heightened this year because in some sense the Republican conservative base has been energized, partly in opposition to Obama. It's also be energized because a lot of moderate Republicans have been beaten, they're gone. So, it's easier for them to win a debate because a lot of moderates have now been moved out of the party," said Gross.
The Republican who wins the primary in the 6th Congressional District will take on a big-name incumbent who has been in Congress since 2004. Before taking that job, Ben Chandler was Kentucky's state auditor, its attorney general and, in 2003, he ran for Governor. The Democrat claims this year is no different than any other election year.
But this year is different, in several ways. This year, Chandler must defend a President from his own party. As an early supporter of Barrack Obama, Chandler has often felt push back from constituents. Most Kentuckians voted against the President in 2008. Chandler even received hate mail. Chandler, though, sounds ready to play defense.
"I think that that's a cookie cutter effort throughout the country, on the part of the Republicans, to try to use Obama and Nancy Pelosi against Democrats throughout the country. And, in my particular case, I think that I've demonstrated by independence for years," said Chandler.
Nevertheless, there's voter anger over the slow economy, the national debt and Democratic initiatives like health care reform.
Health care reform shouldn't be a big issue for Chandler, who voted against it. But a vote he must defend is the yes vote he cast for cap-and-trade legislation. Cap-and-trade is more like a carrot and a stick. The government levies penalties on companies that release too much carbon into the environment, while those who cut carbon emissions are rewarded.
In Kentucky, that's a big deal because cap-and-trade legislation could reduce demand for coal a major source of carbon. Chandler maintains his yes vote is defensible.
"I expect to hear a lot about the energy vote, but, I also think that I can explain to people that it was the right vote for Kentucky. Not only was it an environmentally friendly vote, but, I think, ultimately, if a bill similar to that is passed, it will actually help the coal industry have a longer future in Kentucky," said Chandler.
The cap-and-trade bill now awaits action in the U-S Senate.
"Chandler's probably going to have the roughest race since he won the first time. I still suspect he's going to find a way to pull it out," said Gross.
The political scientist adds the Republican nominee also faces a rough race. For example, the UK professor says, health care reform no longer leads newscasts. The economy, he says, may be mending. And since Barrack Obama was never popular in Kentucky, Gross argues his approval rating here shouldn't be a factor. More importantly, he says, Republicans may be taking on a bad reputation.
"The Republicans may have a little overplayed their card, whereby, I think, you're starting to see some concerns about the Republicans just being a party of no.' The complaint that the Democrats have made over and over again about Republicans aren't presenting anything, they're just being obstructionist. I think some of that has started to stick to the Republicans," said Gross.
The trick for the Republican nominee, says Gross, is to paint Chandler as a radical with strong ties to the Washington establishment. For Chandler, he'd like to label his opponent as way too conservative and a tool of the Christian Right. In central Kentucky, Gross says a Republican who's just right of center would have the best chance of winning the general election. But first, that candidate must win next Tuesday's Republican primary.