In-Depth: Recapping The Contentious 6th District Congressional Race

Nov 5, 2012

Congressman Ben Chandler, Lexington attorney Andy Barr, and Indepedent Randolph Vance
Congressman Ben Chandler, Lexington attorney Andy Barr, and Indepedent Randolph Vance

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Tuesday voters will weigh in one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the state, the 6th District contest with Congressman Ben Chandler, GOP challenger Andy Barr, and independent Randolph Vance.

The last time Congressman Ben Chandler faced Lexington attorney Andy Barr at the polls, Chandler won by a razor thin margin, less than 700 votes. With another tight race between the two this election cycle, analysts say a number of factors could alter the balance this time. The first, redistricting, had been expected to bolster Chandler’s reelection chances by adding 8,319 Democrats to the district and removing 2,715 Republicans. But the addition of Nicholas, Bath, Menifee and other eastern Kentucky counties to the district has given the Barr campaign what it sees as a winning issue.

"The Republicans have made coal the central issue of this race," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "Those eastern counties are not too far from the eastern coal field. A couple of them are actually in it, although there's no mining going on there now."

The issue has been the driving force behind some of the most controversial ads run during the campaign, one being a Barr commercial featuring Heath Lovell, the Vice President of River View Coal in Union County, dressed in overalls and a mining helmet. Lovell’s identity soon became the subject of another round of ads. Chandler's ads dubbed Lovell a coal executive and wealthy GOP donor while Barr's ads defended Lovell as a certified miner.   

Cross says putting words “Big Lie” next to Lovell’s picture was the biggest misstep in the Chandler campaign, one that Republicans were able to seize on.

"They made it stick and they had some coal miners speaking to camera in another ad," Cross says.

Another factor compounding the race, and elevating the coal issue, has been the presidential contest, which both sides have sought to use to their advantage. Barr has repeatedly tried to tie Chandler to President Obama on issues ranging from the EPA’s new guidance discouraging mountaintop removal to the Affordable Care Act, which Chandler did not vote to pass but did vote against repealing. Barr and Chandler locked horns over the law in the candidates’ one and only debate on KET.

"It is a job killer," Barr said. "The employer mandate is a disaster. It's preventing hiring. It's one of the reasons why the economy is not recovering."

Chandler later responded, saying, "It is a very good thing in my judgment to have a law in place that prevents insurance companies from dropping people who have pre-existing conditions."

Cross says he believes that debate, which aired only eight days before the election, generally favored Barr. That is, until the discussion turned to abortion.

"He was asked five times about a rape or incest exception, which is fairly standard, and he refused to answer it," Cross says.

The negative tenor of the campaign itself could also be a deciding factor for some voters. Ads funded by outside groups have ratcheted up the rhetoric as well. During the debate, Chandler held up a flyer with a skeleton on it he claimed was sent by the Barr campaign.

"This suggests that I am in fact trying to kill my constituents here in this district," Chandler charged.

Barr declined to comment on the specific ad during the KET broadcast, but has suggested that Congressman Chandler passed on a chance to elevate the campaign by not agreeing to more debates, saying, "It would be a much more constructive dialogue. Instead, Congressman Chandler hides behind these 30-second attack ads."

Those ads, Cross says, did see a noticeable shift in tone this year on both sides.   

"I don't recall a race of major significance in which the two candidates have accused each other of lying as much as they have," he says.

One candidate who has largely stayed out of the fray has been independent Randolph Vance, who ran as a write-in candidate in the same race in 2010. Vance has said neither candidate appears willing to endorse causes like industrial hemp, which he says could be a real engine for job creation. All told, the rematch between Chandler and Barr could wind up costing $10 million dollars when the totals from the campaigns and outside groups are finally tallied.