Andy Barr challenger still must prove herself to national Democrats

syoungman@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2014 

After striking an aggressive posture against Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr last fall, national Democrats appear to have cooled on their chances of defeating Barr with Democratic candidate and likely nominee Elisabeth Jensen.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) recently released the first round of districts in play in its "Red to Blue" program, a list of 35 districts that the committee thinks can help Democrats retake the U.S. House of Representatives.

Neither Jensen nor Central Kentucky's 6th District were on the list of "emerging" candidates and "emerging" districts.

"These candidates have earned a spot on Red to Blue by surpassing aggressive fundraising, organization and infrastructure goals," the DCCC said in its early March announcement. "These candidates also demonstrate they are problem solvers who will represent the American people's priorities and strengthen the middle class."

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the DCCC, said additional campaigns may be added to the list "throughout the year."

Typically, candidates not included in national party efforts at the beginning of the campaign year have a short window in which to raise enough money to prove they can be competitive in the fall.

Jensen's campaign said in a statement that they "have built a strong, grassroots campaign from the ground up — from our county and constituency group chairs in all 19 counties, to the support of local organized labor, to the support of the local legislators who know these communities best."

"We believe that if we continue to succeed locally, everything else will follow," the campaign said.

The DCCC took an early interest in the district, holding events in Lexington when Barr joined other House Republicans going to war with the White House over "Obamacare" last September, resulting in a 16-day federal government shutdown.

Shortly after, Lexington businessman Joe Palumbo, a top contender to win the Democratic nomination at the time, withdrew from the race to focus on his business and his family. Democratic officials followed that announcement by hustling to recruit another candidate before the filing deadline.

State Sen. R.J. Palmer, who was recruited by the party to run but declined, said that it is "way too early to cast this race aside."

Palmer noted that in 2004, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) came into Kentucky at the last minute to try to help Democrat Daniel Mongiardo defeat former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning after initially writing the race off.

"I think she's a viable candidate," Palmer said. "I think it comes down to a matter of money. And taking on an incumbent, it's always a difficult challenge."

At the end of 2013, Barr's campaign had raised about $1.3 million and had about $900,000 in cash. Jensen had raised about $325,000, including $100,000 in the last quarter of 2013 and a personal loan of $100,000 to the campaign.

The only other Democrat in the race is retired Lexington engineer Geoff Young, a former Green Party member who hasn't reported raising any money for the campaign.

If Jensen can report a strong first fundraising quarter in April, state Democrats are hopeful she will break into the top 40 or 50 races the DCCC is targeting.

"I think she does have a time period here where she does have to prove herself," Palmer said. "She's worked extremely hard and I commend her for that."

After the district was redrawn in an effort to make it safer for former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, who lost to Barr in 2012, the prevailing thinking became that the district, anchored by left-leaning Lexington, was a swing district that Democrats could easily hold.

But Chandler said this week that while it's not as conservative as the majority of Kentucky's other congressional districts, the 6th District is still a tough place for Democrats to run.

"This is a very difficult district for a Democrat," Chandler said. "President Obama lost it by a wide margin, and it is rated nationally as a 7-point Republican district. Obviously a Democrat can win, but it's not easy."

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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