On Monday, on the set of KET’s “Kentucky Tonight,” Nancy Jo Kemper will get her first chance to sit opposite U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, the man against whom she spent most of this year campaigning.
Barr has raised $2.2 million for his re-election, half of it from political action committees for banks, insurance companies, investment firms and others with a financial stake in his House votes. Separately, his leadership PAC has collected $240,275. He’s been able to buy plenty of advertising to promote himself while dodging live appearances with Kemper, his Democratic challenger.
Barr seldom acknowledges Kemper outside of the attack ads he recently introduced. In one, his campaign spliced comments she made about the improving national economy — “So many wonderful things have been happening!” — against video of shadowy ISIS soldiers waving their rifles in the air. “Is Nancy Jo Kemper confused?” the narrator asks. “Nancy Jo Kemper: Too out of touch for Kentucky.”
“It’s like campaigning against a ghost. We never actually see him,” Kemper said last week at her campaign headquarters, where she has raised $384,252 since filing to run in January.
If she could ask Barr a question during Monday night’s program, Kemper said, “it would be, ‘Why has it been so important for you to raise so much money for your campaign fund and your private leadership PAC? Why haven’t you been representing the people of Kentucky?’”
Barr, who is finishing his second term in Congress, did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this article. In his campaign materials, Barr says he is representing the people of Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District by advocating for a smaller government that does less, costs less and interferes less.
“As a conservative, Andy believes that limited government and free enterprise empower the American people with the greatest opportunity to pursue happiness, provide for their families and give their children a better life. He has consistently voted to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, to stop the president’s regulatory overreach and to preserve the rights guaranteed to the people in the Constitution,” his campaign website states.
An analysis of Barr’s congressional record by the nonpartisan website GovTrack found that he has not had much success getting bills through the legislative process, and he seldom joins with the Democratic minority on bipartisan efforts. Ideologically, he’s one of the most conservative representatives based on the bills and resolutions he supports, according to GovTrack.
Barr’s ideology has proven popular in Central Kentucky. Two years ago, he defeated a liberal Democratic challenger, Elisabeth Jensen, by a 20-point margin, winning all 19 counties in the district. His endorsements this year have included the National Rifle Association and the Commonwealth Policy Center, a religious conservative group that backed him because he opposes legalized abortion, same-sex marriage and federal directives on transgender bathroom use.
“I think he represents the values of the people well,” said Richard Nelson, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center. “We take the view that our rights come from God — we believe in the sanctity of life, we believe in religious freedom — and Andy Barr has stood strongly for these issues that are what we call the pillars of our society.”
Kemper is religious herself. She’s pastor at New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and spent 18 years as executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.
But she’s no conservative. On nearly every controversial issue, Kemper stands in stark contrast to Barr. He’s against a higher minimum wage; she’s for it, calling for $15 an hour to start, with increases for inflation. He opposes legalized abortion; she supports it. He has voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act; she praises the law for opening the doctor’s office to the working poor and people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Barr says he has voted in favor of cutting trillions of dollars in federal spending, particularly from domestic programs. Kemper talks about the need for new vocational training courses and infrastructure repair projects that could gainfully employ jobless Americans while upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, water systems and other public facilities. “I’m thinking here of our coal miners who know how to work with heavy machinery,” she said last week.
Kemper describes Barr as a privileged “country club kid” who doesn’t understand his constituents’ everyday troubles. Barr’s sympathies lie with wealthy special interests, especially if they give him campaign donations, she said.
The difference is, I would put human need over corporate greed. I’m tired as a citizen of subsidizing companies like Wal-Mart, which has one of the biggest budgets and profit margins in the country, and yet they have workers who are so poorly paid they qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, which the government provides. Nobody who works full-time in this country should be living in poverty.
Nancy Jo Kemper, Democratic nominee for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District
“The difference is, I would put human need over corporate greed,” she said. “I’m tired as a citizen of subsidizing companies like Wal-Mart, which has one of the biggest budgets and profit margins in the country, and yet they have workers who are so poorly paid they qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, which the government provides. Nobody who works full-time in this country should be living in poverty.”
Barr’s re-election campaign has taken $3,000 from Wal-Mart’s PAC. Barr says he opposes raising the minimum wage because that would force employers to lay off workers or cut hours. Citing the same concerns, he voted last month to stall the U.S. Department of Labor’s extension of overtime pay to more than four million additional workers.
“While the Department of Labor bureaucrats claim that the overtime rule will improve economic conditions for middle-class employees, this onerous regulation on businesses, educational institutions and nonprofits will have the exact opposite effect by reducing job opportunities and limiting hours for many workers,” Barr said on the House floor.
Over the summer, Barr co-wrote the House Republicans’ anti-poverty plan, which called for more work requirements and time limits on public benefits for the poor. The federal government might turn over programs, such as food stamps, disability payments and public housing, to the states in the form of block grants, while encouraging states to narrow eligibility and eliminate fraud, he suggested. Overall, he said, the federal war on poverty has been an expensive failure.
“The number of Americans living in poverty has increased by nearly seven million during the Obama administration,” Barr says in his campaign materials.
It’s not clear where Barr found that number — he cites no source and his office would not comment — but the U.S. Census Bureau says he’s wrong. The number of Americans living in poverty has fallen by 446,000 since Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, according to the bureau. And that’s with a population growth of 15 million people. The percentage of Americans living in poverty has dropped from 14.3 to 13.5.
Defending the banks
Inside Washington, Barr’s signature issue is banking deregulation. As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, Barr made numerous attempts to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 and the watchdog agency it created, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He criticizes the CFPB for “making it harder for Kentuckians to get a loan to buy a house, start or expand a business and invest in their communities.”
But sometimes he runs into obstacles. In September, Barr’s committee held a hearing to discuss the scandal at Wells Fargo, which illegally charged customers $1.5 million in fees after it secretly opened two million sham accounts in their names. The CFPB was among the investigating agencies that socked Wells Fargo with a record-setting $185 million in fines.
At the hearing, Barr urged Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf to consider how the controversy could set back his deregulation efforts.
“This scandal has painted a bad picture for the entire banking sector,” Barr told Stumpf. “We’ve been fighting for regulatory relief for these small community banks and these credit unions that frankly represent competition to big banks like you. So what I worry about are these small community banks and credit unions that are now going to have to deal with the ramifications of the bad acts of your institution.”
“Well, again,” Stumpf replied, “I’m sorry for what we did.”
While the Department of Labor bureaucrats claim that the overtime rule will improve economic conditions for middle-class employees, this onerous regulation on businesses, educational institutions and nonprofits will have the exact opposite effect by reducing job opportunities and limiting hours for many workers.
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington
If elected, Kemper said, she would defend the Dodd-Frank Act. Congress passed the law in response to the 2008 financial sector collapse that brought on a global recession. It placed new lending and capitalization requirements on banks and prohibited them from engaging in risky investments with their assets. The banks that have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Barr’s campaigns resent the restrictions on some of their lucrative activities, she said.
“Dodd-Frank is protecting consumers and keeping us from having another financial meltdown like we had in 2008,” Kemper said.
Kemper’s uphill climb
Barr’s television commercials prominently feature the threat posed by ISIS overseas and the drug addiction epidemic at home. For the former, Barr says he helps fight ISIS as a member of the Financial Service Committee’s Bipartisan Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, which has met six times this year. For the latter, Barr says a drug abuse task force he organized in his district contributed several ideas to a Senate drug abuse bill that Obama signed into law.
That law, the Comprehensive Addictions and Recovery Act of 2016, is supposed to expand addiction education and prevention efforts, strengthen treatment options and widen access to overdose medications. However, Obama, congressional Democrats and some medical groups had asked for $1.1 billion in federal spending to go along with it. Republican leaders agreed to provide only $181 million.
Kemper said Barr’s drug abuse commercial is an example of him dishonestly taking credit to conceal the fact that he’s been ineffective for two terms.
“His ad on opioid addiction, he says he’s got this task force and the recommendations went into this legislation that was passed,” she said. “But guess what? The Republicans haven’t funded that legislation. So they’ve kind of spoken with forked tongue.”
Kemper’s challenge will be convincing enough voters to send her to Washington as Barr’s replacement. The 6th Congressional District is considered a likely Republican hold by Washington political analysts. Neither the Kentucky Democratic Party nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have done much to assist Kemper. Their money is going to races they consider more competitive.
And it’s unknown whether the district’s voters are closely following this race. In 2014, more than half of them didn’t cast a ballot for U.S. representative, allowing Barr to be re-elected by just 28 percent of the registered voters.
However, Kemper’s campaign manager, Sellus Wilder, said Barr wouldn’t bother paying for attack ads if he wasn’t nervous. The Kemper campaign’s internal polling showed Barr’s favorability rating under 50 percent even before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump began his recent slump in national polls, tainting the GOP’s brand as a whole, Wilder said.
“If opposing a higher minimum wage and attacking the war on poverty were really winning issues in this district, then Andy would be campaigning on that stuff instead of making up silly attack ads about ISIS,” Wilder said.
Speaking of Trump, who is favored to carry Kentucky, Kemper said she can appeal to some Trump supporters with her agenda to help the working poor. Many of Trump’s followers believe that Washington politicians like Barr don’t care about their economic struggle, she said.
“The populist anger that we see at this moment is, to my pastor’s heart, a cover for two things: One is fear and the other is hurt,” she said. “The fear is about the radical kind of change that they’re afraid is happening to the culture as it diversifies, as we see the kind of demographic changes that are happening. There’s a fear of losing ground. The second, the hurt, is this feeling that the country they love and its government have not been there for them, that it’s failed them.”
Garland Hale “Andy” Barr IV
Born: July 24, 1973
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government and philosophy, University of Virginia; law degree, University of Kentucky College of Law
Elected office: U.S. House, 2013 to present
Family: Married (Eleanor Carol Leavell), two daughters
Nancy Jo Kemper
Born: May 6, 1942
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and history, Transylvania University; master’s of divinity in theology, Yale University
Occupation: Pastor, New Union Christian Church
Family: Divorced, two daughters