U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler laid a foundation for his re-election campaign at a business luncheon Friday by billing himself as a congressional moderate — a dying breed that he said is being squeezed out by hard-line activists on both sides.
"If you're a moderate in the Democratic Party and you reach out to the Republican Party, you can just count on having your fingers burned. You can just count on your left-wing attacking you," Chandler said at a Commerce Lexington lunch at the Marriott Griffin Gate. "So it has a chilling effect."
Moderates from both parties are more likely to risk sharp criticism from "purist" activists, and as a result, public policy suffers, he said.
He invoked the name of Henry Clay, the 19th-century U.S. senator from Lexington whose work during the debate over slavery earned him the nickname the "Great Compromiser."
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"Today, he'd be called the 'Great Betrayer' because you don't get rewarded for compromising in this atmosphere," Chandler said.
Earlier in his remarks, he said he had "a tremendous working relationship" with key Kentucky Republicans, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, on issues such as the chemical disposal at the U.S. Army Depot and obtaining federal funding for Kentucky.
It was Chandler's first public appearance since learning Tuesday that six Republicans will vie in the GOP primary for the right to challenge him in November. He is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
And it was the first glimpse into how Chandler might try to weather what he later called the harshest political climate he's seen.
"People are far more interested in representation from folks who they sense have an independent approach," he told the Herald-Leader.
For instance, in the last year, he bucked the Democrats in Congress by voting against the House's health care bill — a pillar of President Barack Obama's domestic agenda. Chandler, a member of the conservative "Blue Dog Democrats," said in his 27-minute speech Friday that after analyzing the bill he didn't believe it would lower health care costs for Americans or for small businesses.
He also has drawn criticism from Republicans and some Democrats in Kentucky for voting for a bill last year aimed at capping emissions of greenhouse gases, which would affect, among other things, the coal business.
He said he supported it not only as a measure to responsibly address a cause of climate change but also because it included $60 billion to soften the blow of the new changes on the coal industry.
Chandler's vote was one of the reasons that former coal businessman Mike Templeman cited for entering the GOP primary for the 6th congressional district. Templeman this week also called Chandler "a lap dog" for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Templeman and Lexington lawyer Andy Barr have emerged early as the two most well-connected Republicans in that race.
Barr was among the 225 business leaders to listen to Chandler's remarks Friday. And afterward, he also moved to connect Chandler with national Democratic leaders.
"Unfortunately, the Chandler-Pelosi Congress is doing everything to harm the economy instead of helping it recover," he said, citing the health care bill and the cap-and-trade emissions bill.
Chandler, however, said in his speech he expected Congress to turn its attention to economic issues, including tax incentives and perhaps making permanent a first-time home-buyer tax credit that is set to expire April 30.
Barr said he didn't buy Chandler's self-description of being a moderate. "The Congressman talks like a Blue Dog in Kentucky and votes like a Yellow Dog in Washington," Barr said.
Chandler, who said he hasn't met any of the Republican candidates, declined to respond to their early criticism "until they decide who their nominee is going to be."
"It's going to be exactly what I expect," Chandler said. "Ugly attacks from the other side."