FRANKFORT — When state lawmakers redrew the boundaries of Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District this year, Republican Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington dubbed the bill the "Ben Chandler Lifetime Employment Act."
The new map transferred some predominantly Republican areas to Western Kentucky's 2nd District and added some Democratic-leaning counties in Eastern Kentucky to the 6th District. Now, the district has 8,319 more Democrats than it did in 2010 and 2,715 fewer Republicans. Independents increased by 2,902.
The move, backed by Chandler, was designed to make it tougher for Republican Andy Barr to challenge Chandler this year in a rematch. Barr lost to Chandler by 648 votes out of 239,203 cast two years ago.
It hasn't worked out like Chandler hoped. With little more than a week to go before the Nov. 6 election, both campaigns acknowledge they're in another tight race. As a result, the campaigns and outside interest groups have unleashed wave after wave of negative, name-calling ads.
Kerr said last week that redistricting has "backfired" on Chandler, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2015.
There are no active coal mines in the 19-county district, but Barr and national Republicans made coal a centerpiece of the campaign in an effort to connect with sympathetic voters in the new Eastern Kentucky counties — Robertson, Nicholas, Fleming, Bath, Menifee and Wolfe.
"Some of the new counties that were put in have a strong interest in coal. Some mine employees live there, and, of course, we have coal corporate offices in Lexington," Kerr said. "Barr brought coal into the race, and Chandler did not know how to respond."
During a recent Barr appearance at Madison Middle School in Richmond, seventh-grader Levi Gaskins asked him, "Why is your campaign talking so much about coal?"
Barr gave his stock answer — that many families in the district have relatives who work in the coal industry, which has been hit hard in Kentucky by job losses, and that less production of coal could mean higher electricity bills for all Kentuckians.
Barr blames Chandler for the lost jobs, saying Chandler has supported stifling environmental regulations pushed by President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency. (Chandler disputes that claim, noting that most economists say a warm winter and low natural gas prices caused the job losses.)
Don Dugi, a political science professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, said he does not think coal is an issue of strong interest in Central Kentucky but knows why Barr is talking so much about it.
"I think the main reason is because coal officials are giving his campaign a truckload of money," Dugi said.
Coal executives and their political action committees, disgusted with Obama, have given tens of thousands of dollars to Barr's campaign. In the campaigns' most recent financial reports, Barr raised $800,000 in July, August and September while Chandler took in $500,000.
For the entire campaign, Barr had raised about $1.8 million and had about $790,000 on hand as of mid-October. Chandler had raised about $2 million and had $830,000 on hand.
Chandler said he has voted "on a lot of pro-coal things," such as funding for clean-coal technology in the controversial 2009 cap-and-trade bill, which was designed to curb carbon dioxide emissions from coal-powered plants. He said his vote on cap-and-trade was based on environmental concerns, not to hurt the coal industry. The bill passed the House but later died in the Senate.
Donald Gross, a University of Kentucky political science professor, said Barr's coal platform is part of an overall Republican strategy in Ohio, Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia.
He also noted that outside interest groups, particularly the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, are spending big money on the race. The Herald-Leader previously reported that outside groups planned to spend more than $1 million on television advertising in the race.
Gross said he did not know whether Barr's message on coal is resonating in the district.
"I'd really like to see some reliable polling on that other than from the campaigns," he said. "I feel less comfortable in calling this race than any race I've seen."
At a recent campaign stop with the Lexington Kiwanis Club, Barr said redistricting made it harder "on paper" for a Republican to win in the 6th District. It is unfortunate, he said, that hundreds of families in Jessamine County who live only minutes away from Chandler's district office are now in a congressional district with Owensboro.
Still, he said people in new areas of the district don't put much emphasis on his political affiliation.
"The laid-off coal miner in Wolfe County could care less that I am a Republican. What he wants is to get back to work," Barr said. "Our message is resonating like wildfire in these new areas."
Chandler, after a speech at a Franklin County senior citizens center, was asked why the race is tight, given that redistricting was in his favor.
"I expected it to be close," he said. "This is a district that is Republican in performance. It had been Republican before me. We've always known that. It's a hard district for a Democrat to poll."
Chandler also said running on a ticket with Obama, who is unpopular in the state, is "a challenge." He noted that Obama lost the district by 12 percentage points in 2008 even though Fayette County, the district's most populous county, sided with Obama.
"The presidential race always has some effect on the other federal races," he said.
On the campaign trail, both Barr and Chandler, who are lawyers, display affable personalities.
Barr said he enjoys talking to people and seems more at ease doing so than in 2010. Chandler often gets requests on the campaign trail to sing My Old Kentucky Home, a song his grandfather, the late Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler, often performed at public events. He declines.
Barr, who has never held public office, describes himself as "someone who can make a difference." Chandler calls himself "a moderate Democrat," a description that reflects the criticism he often takes from conservatives and liberals alike. For example, the liberal blog Barefoot & Progressive published a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Chandler last week that mocked his conservative stances on everything from immigration to gay marriage.
Aside from coal, the other major policy issue in this year's race has been the future of Medicare. Barr is backing a Medicare plan offered by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is Republican Mitt Romney's running mate for vice president.
Ryan's plan tries to slow the increase in government spending on Medicare by implementing a system of payments to senior citizens, who would use the money to buy health insurance. Chandler says the program needs reforms, but only after the economy improves. He has not provided specifics.
Chandler maintains the major issue in the race is integrity — a trait, he says, Barr lacks, as evidenced by his campaign materials that "contain outright lies." He points to campaign mailers from the Kentucky Republican Party that he says do not accurately reflect his voting record. Barr said they are correct.
Chandler and the Democratic National Congressional Committee have tried to bolster their case that Barr is untrustworthy by accusing him in multiple TV ads of trying to hide his "criminal record."
Barr was charged by police with possession of a fake driver's license nearly 20 years ago, when he was a 19-year-old college student. He has called the incident a stupid mistake. But Chandler maintains that Barr showed a lack of integrity when he failed to disclose the incident when he applied for a state job in the administration of former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
Barr went on to become Fletcher's deputy general counsel. He was not implicated in the hiring scandal that marred the Fletcher administration, but that hasn't stopped Chandler and national Democrats from repeatedly mentioning that Barr's office was searched by law enforcement officials during the hiring investigation.
Meanwhile, the biggest winner from non-stop negative ads by Barr and Chandler this fall might be Randolph Vance, the little-known Independent Party candidate who will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot with the two major candidates.
Vance, a Lexington convenience store employee, is running a limited campaign and is not raising campaign funds. But he will appear alongside Chandler and Barr when they hold the only debate of the campaign at 8 p.m. Monday on Kentucky Educational Television.
Vance said the residents of the district deserve better than the Barr and Chandler attack ads "that tell us zilch about the candidates' visions for the district or future."
Vance said Barr and Chandler spend too much time talking about coal and scaring elderly people with talk of ending Medicare. The district's people are more concerned about jobs and education, he said.
"If you take their ads at face value, you'd have to conclude both are liars," Vance said.