FRANKFORT — Everyone — including the two major-party candidates — thought this year's race for Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District would be extremely close.
Republican Andy Barr, who lost to Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler by only 648 votes in their 2010 contest, outdistanced Chandler by 11,786 votes in Tuesday's election, creating the Kentucky upset of the day.
Barr received 50.57 percent of the 302,998 votes cast, and Chandler trailed with 46.68 percent.
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Barr, a bit weary Wednesday after only a few hours of sleep, credited his campaign's victory on its unrelenting focus on coal and Chandler's ties to President Barack Obama, who captured only 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky.
Chandler did not return repeated phone calls Wednesday to discuss his loss.
Throughout the campaign, Barr cited Chandler's 2009 support of the Obama-backed "cap and trade" legislation that angered coal officials. If the proposal had become law, it would have placed restrictions on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-powered plants.
"I ran in 2010 against Chandler's vote on the issue, but we made it more prominent this year," Barr said. "I decided to do that because problems continued in the coal industry, which illustrated loss of jobs, something people readily understood."
Barr said he knew he had "an excellent shot of winning this race" last spring when about two out of every five Democratic voters in Kentucky's presidential primary chose "uncommitted" on the ballot instead of voting for Obama.
Early polls put out by the Chandler campaign showed him with a 20 percent lead, "but it was never that high," Barr said. "We were always in striking distance and went ahead when the congressman attacked Heath Lovell."
Barr had run an ad featuring Lovell in a hard hat and miner's garb, supporting Barr. The Chandler campaign then ran a spot in September claiming that Lovell, a coal-company executive, is not a miner. Lovell threatened to file a slander suit over Chandler's ad, but the Chandler campaign stopped running it.
"That gave our campaign a lot of attention and made Chandler look unsympathetic to people out of work," Barr said. "We were really off and running then. We never looked back after that."
Maybe most embarrassing to Chandler, who frequently made it known on the campaign trail that he was the grandson of the late Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler, was the loss of his home county of Woodford. The only counties he won Tuesday in the 19-county district were Fayette and Franklin.
Frankfort attorney William Kirkland, who represents the 6th District on the state Republican Party Executive Committee, said it was surprising that Chandler fared poorly among his political base, especially in Woodford County.
"But I have heard from Democratic friends that Mr. Chandler has not stayed in touch that much with his friends and constituents," Kirkland said. "He has not been as accessible as he should be. He has not developed an outgoing personality that people like to see. He's nothing like his grandfather."
Brenda Craig, vice chairwoman of the Woodford County Republican Party, said Barr "got out and met with the people, talked to them about issues they were concerned with and listened when they talked.
"We just didn't see that in Ben Chandler and felt he was part of the Washington problem."
Calls and emails seeking comment from several Democratic officials in the 6th District and Woodford County were not returned Wednesday.
Woodford County Judge-Executive John E. Coyle, a Democrat, said he surprised by Chandler's loss in Woodford County, but he declined to elaborate.
Barr said that in Woodford County, he developed relationships with farmers, small business operators and people in the horse industry whom he met in the 2010 contest.
"I stayed in touch with those folks over the last two years, and it paid off Tuesday," he said.
Kirkland said Barr also struck political gold with coal.
"Many people in the district have an interest in coal or have family members who are or were involved in coal," he said. "The issue invigorated Andy's campaign and highlighted the people's need for jobs. That, along with his much better performance as a campaigner this time around, led him to victory."
Chandler was supposed to have had a distinct advantage in the race.
Earlier this year, state legislators, with Chandler's blessing, redrew the district's boundaries, adding 8,319 Democrats to it and removing 2,715 Republicans to other districts. In the process, the district shifted east, closer to coal country, picking up the Democratic-leaning counties of Robertson, Fleming, Nicholas, Bath, Menifee and Wolfe counties.
Chandler lost them all.
Two years ago, Chandler was victorious in six of 16 counties — Bourbon, Fayette, Franklin, Montgomery, Powell and Woodford.
In his concession speech Tuesday night, Chandler blamed the loss on Obama, saying "I'm afraid the president was just a little too heavy for us in some of the rural counties."
Obama carried only four of Kentucky's 120 counties — Fayette, Franklin, Jefferson and Elliott.
In the 6th District, Chandler outperformed Obama by about 5.5 percentage points, while GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney did about 5.5 percentage points better than Barr, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of vote results.
Barr "found an issue, and that was coal," Republican state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said. "That resonated with farmers in Kentucky, because we feel we're threatened by an excessive regulatory environment on the federal level from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration."
Former state GOP chairman John McCarthy said many people did not think coal was that important to the district, which has no active coal mines, "but, obviously, it is, because it's about jobs and the economy."
There had been speculation that independent Randolph Vance, a Lexington convenience store employee who ran a limited campaign, could play a spoiler in a tight race. But Vance received only 8,340 votes, or 2.75 percent. Chandler would have lost even if he had captured all of Vance's votes.