Members of Congress seldom lose elections, having better name recognition and more money than most challengers. But U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, fell two years ago to a young Republican lawyer named Andy Barr.
Barr ousted Chandler after he aggressively tied the incumbent to Democratic President Barack Obama, who is reviled in Kentucky. On the same ballot that doomed Chandler, Obama lost Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District by 14 points.
Now that Barr is the incumbent seeking re-election Nov. 4, he is sticking with what worked last time. He's running hard against Obama while almost never uttering the name of his Democratic opponent, Elisabeth Jensen, who runs an educational nonprofit.
Barr delivers a fast-paced, 15-minute stump speech expressing his disgust with the $17 trillion federal debt; spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security; "Obamacare"; the Environmental Protection Agency's "war on coal"; bank regulations; the Benghazi attack; illegal immigrants; prisoner releases from Guantánamo Bay; the Internal Revenue Service; the Department of Veterans Affairs; Iran moving to get nuclear weapons; Russia invading Ukraine; Syria imploding; and "an army of well-armed, battled-hardened Islamic fighters" on the march in the Middle East.
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Obama is to blame, Barr concludes at the end.
"Seventy-six percent of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction," Barr told a lunchtime audience at the Rotary Club of Lexington last month. "The president's policies and his scandals have done more to discredit big government as the solution to America's problems than anything that I or anyone else could ever say."
It's a juicy red meat speech for a moderate House district that should look more competitive, said Donald Gross, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.
The city of Lexington leans liberal while outlying suburban and rural counties lean conservative, and over the years, Democrats and Republicans have flipped the 6th District seat back and forth, Gross said. Yet the district is labeled "safely Republican" this year by Washington-based election forecasters.
"Democrats have lost a real opportunity in the 6th District," Gross said. "They just don't seem to have pursued it. Usually when you have a first-term freshman like Andy Barr, he's considered as vulnerable for a challenge as he's going to get because he doesn't have much seniority yet. But I haven't seen very much from Elisabeth Jensen. The national Democratic campaign groups never seemed to come in here, either."
Jensen's own internal poll showed her down by 9 points in September, a forecast that she — somewhat unusually — released to the public. In a Sept. 19 memo, Barr's pollster said the congressman is viewed favorably by 53 percent of voters and unfavorably by 32 percent, "his best image rating since we started polling for him in 2011."
Jensen's originally stated strategy of riding the political coattails of Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, would appear to be weakening along with Grimes' own prospects in most polls in the Senate race.
But Jensen hardly has thrown in the towel.
While Grimes struggles to distance herself from Obama and the national Democratic Party, Jensen steadfastly campaigns on a more liberal platform. Jensen defends the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health insurance for more than 521,000 Kentuckians, and she supports a higher national minimum wage and more federal spending on infrastructure, to create blue-collar jobs.
"If our working families have a little more money in their pockets they might do some repairs on their house, they might buy a new car or a computer for their kids, they might dine out a few more times a month in their communities," Jensen says in her own stump speech. "They're gonna spend money here in Kentucky, they're gonna create demand here in Kentucky, and that's gonna create more jobs here in Kentucky."
She also portrays a gender gap between herself and Barr. The self-described "Kentucky mom" organized her female supporters into a "Kentucky Moms Caucus" and endorses the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure intended to prohibit sex discrimination in wages. Senate Republicans twice have blocked the bill in that chamber. Barr says he would oppose it in the House.
"I think women should be paid the same as men," Jensen said at a Sept. 25 candidates forum in Frankfort, seated beside Barr. "I personally have experienced wage discrimination; it happens at every level of the workforce. It's not a women's issue. It's a family issue. There are more and more women who are the sole provider for their family or who contribute to making ends meet. It's an issue that must be resolved."
In response, Barr told the Frankfort crowd: "As the father of two daughters, of course I support equal pay for equal work, and I'm raising my daughters to know that there is no limit to what they can accomplish. I don't believe that a new law is what we need. We have two laws on the books now that prohibit, that legally prohibit, discrimination on the basis of gender. So what we don't need to be doing is lining the pockets of trial lawyers."
Two televised debates are scheduled between Barr and Jensen, one on KET's Kentucky Tonight on Oct. 20 and the other at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond on Oct. 27. The second debate will air on WKYT-TV.
Garland Hale "Andy" Barr IV, 41, is the scion of an old, successful Lexington family. After graduating from UK law school and a stint in Washington as a congressional aide, Barr worked as an attorney for Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher from 2003 to 2007. Later, he entered private practice in Lexington, running twice against Chandler for the 6th District seat. He came within 650 votes in 2010; he won in 2012.
Barr, who criticized Chandler for losing touch with his constituents, has vowed to avoid the same mistake. This year, he is attending a blur of parades, festivals, tours, lunches, town hall discussions and ribbon cuttings across the district's 19 counties. His staff frequently travels the region to hear constituents' requests.
"You have to give Andy Barr credit, he does the nitty-gritty work that's necessary to keep the lines of communication open and remind his constituents that he's here," said Gross, the political scientist. "Half the folks will get mad at you on the policy stuff, whatever you do, but everyone respects you if you're good at constituent outreach."
Barr also proved himself a staunch conservative. He votes with the House Republican caucus 96 percent of the time, according to a Washington Post analysis of the 113th Congress. From his seat on the House Financial Services Committee, Barr has sponsored several exemptions to parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank banking reform law. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act; to block $9.7 billion in aid for Hurricane Sandy victims; and to shut down the government for two weeks last October as a protest against Congress raising the federal debt limit.
"It is unfair to young people and to future generations of Americans to continue to raise the debt ceiling without doing something about the underlying cause, and that is our runaway government spending," Barr said at the Frankfort forum to explain his shutdown vote.
Moments later, Jensen jabbed at Barr: "You know, I've had the opportunity to work in the private sector and in nonprofits for close to 30 years. I've never had the opportunity to just go home if I didn't get what I wanted. I go to work every day and try to find solutions."
When Barr votes against public assistance, he says it's necessary to prod people onto their feet. He told a Richmond audience last winter that extending unemployment benefits would provide a disincentive for the long-term jobless to seek work. He voted a year ago to cut billions from food stamps over the next decade, calling the legislation "the most compassionate policy because it encourages people who are capable of work to move from dependence to self-sufficiency."
Fifteen percent of 6th District households — more than 45,000 homes — get food stamps so they can purchase groceries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most are families with at least one parent holding a low-wage job. Their median household income is $14,237.
Elisabeth Ann Jensen, 49, an Indiana native, spent 15 years in the manufacturing divisions of Fortune 500 companies, including five years as a children's apparel executive at The Walt Disney Co. in California.
In 1996, during Jensen's time at Disney, human rights activists testified to Congress that the company exploited child labor. For example, the activists said, Disney sold a Pocahontas T-shirt for $11 in the United States while impoverished Haitian children were paid 25 cents each to sew it. A Disney spokesman told Congress the company investigated the factories in question "and found no minimum-wage violations in Haiti." The minimum wage in Haiti was $2.40 a day, the activists responded.
"The workers are on the edge of starvation, going to bed hungry," Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, told a House panel reviewing the Disney allegations. "The children are unable to go to school."
Last week, the Jensen campaign issued a statement about her reaction to the 1990s controversy: "She was distressed to read in the press about working conditions for employees of subcontractors for independent licensees of Disney branded products, but pleased that those responsible within the corporation responded quickly and aggressively when the problems were brought to light by human rights organizations. And the corporation was later held up as a model of international sourcing practices."
A horse enthusiast, Jensen moved to Lexington around 2000 to pursue administrative jobs on Thoroughbred farms. In 2002, she and horseman Bill Casner founded the nonprofit Race for Education, a scholarship program to help the children of Central Kentucky's horse and agricultural industries. In 2012, with Jensen as its $71,000-a-year president, Race for Education gave $343,796 in assistance to students.
Jensen says she grew frustrated in 2013 watching "the it's-not-my-job Congress" bicker instead of addressing the problems of working families. She tells audiences that Barr pushes tax breaks and looser regulations for his wealthy banking donors and "trickle down economics" for everyone else.
"Trickle down economics doesn't work. The only thing that's trickling down are our wages," Jensen told labor union members at a Lexington Teamsters hall last month.
"I am running against Wall Street's congressman," she said. "My opponent has to spend a lot of time balancing the needs of competing interests. On one hand, he's got all the millionaires, and on the other hand, he's got all the billionaires."
Jensen has issued a jobs plan calling for more government intervention in the economy: a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, up from the current $7.25, and then indexed to rise with inflation; construction of more roads, bridges, schools and high-speed Internet; more subsidies for child care, worker training and college scholarships; and a new role for post offices as community lender, to replace high-interest payday loan stores.
If larger federal budget deficits are the short-term result of priming the pump, then so be it, she says.
"I think it's really common sense," she said in a recent interview. "The biggest challenge to our economy right now is that average Americans, average Kentuckians, don't have any money to spend unless it comes from personal debt. That's not healthy."
However, Jensen hasn't raised enough money to effectively broadcast her message to the voters on television and radio, said Gross, the political scientist. As of June 30, the most recent reporting date, Jensen had $276,312 in campaign cash on hand; Barr had $1.36 million. And Jensen loaned her campaign $100,000 out of her own pocket.
"Time is running out for her. She needs a theme, she needs to be on the air right now explaining to us what she would do and why we should vote for her over Andy Barr," Gross said. "Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophesy where the donors have decided that she's not doing well, so they're just not going to give her any money for advertising."