This is not a good year to be Ben Chandler.
Chandler, a Versailles Democrat, breezed through four elections to represent Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. In 2006, the Republicans couldn't even find someone to challenge him.
That year, Democrats won control of Congress and awarded Chandler a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. The seat lets him steer federal dollars to projects of his choice and boosts his campaign fund-raising with lobbyists and other insiders.
This year is different. Thirty-four months into an economic recession, voters say they're sore at the Democrats running Washington for not ending it and mad about government overreach and growing deficits.
Believing in big government is unpopular this year, as is being an incumbent Democrat. Chandler, 51, has both targets on his back.
"Ben has a tough case to make," said state Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, a longtime friend.
Kentucky benefits more than most states from federal spending, particularly entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Damron said. However, Kentuckians say they want spending slashed, he said.
"You always wonder about people who oppose government spending unless it's for them," Damron said. "I think people are upset about spending because they hear about it on the radio all the time. And all of us are worried about the deficits. But a lot of this spending was aimed at helping people get through these tough times."
Chandler stresses his independence as he prepares to face Republican lawyer Andy Barr of Lexington on Nov. 2.
He never moved to Washington; he bunks in his office and flies home on weekends. His campaign commercials don't identify him as a Democrat. They barely admit that he sits in Congress, focusing instead on his stint a decade ago as Kentucky's attorney general.
Mindful of public opinion, he stopped using the words "stimulus spending." He was warned they poll badly. Now he refers to "the Recovery Act" when discussing the $787 billion in federal aid he supported last year to prop up the ailing economy.
But after 19 years in public office, Chandler is who he is — a career politician, the grandson of a popular Kentucky governor — and he says government is how society pools its resources to educate children, build highways and sometimes save the economy.
"When this recession started, you had a $2 trillion gap in the economy, which represents $2 trillion worth of lost jobs. Now, do you accept all of those lost jobs? Or do you throw something into the breach to try and prevent the country from descending into economic chaos?" Chandler asked on a recent evening.
He was speaking at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. Minutes earlier, he had announced $2.4 million in earmarked federal spending for research to turn vegetation and algae into fuel, on top of $3.6 million he secured in 2009.
EKU'S biofuels research partner, defense contractor General Atomics of San Diego, has given Chandler's campaign at least $9,000. EKU officials gave Chandler $3,750 more last December.
On the campaign trail this summer, Chandler dashed from check presentations to ribbon cuttings to show him pumping federal money into his district. Lexington got the Newtown Pike extension for $12.4 million. Estill County got nearly $7 million for a wastewater treatment system.
"I make no apologies for those things, regardless of the atmosphere," he said. "It's an easy call when you consider what sort of value these projects are going to bring to their communities."
No issue divides Chandler from Barr, his GOP challenger, as neatly as the $787 billion federal stimulus package that Congress passed in 2009. The package funded infrastructure projects and helped states cover the costs of schools, jobless benefits and Medicaid.
Chandler said the stimulus kept enough money circulating to stop the country from sliding into a depression. Deficits are worrisome, but high unemployment is worse, he said, and there are times when Washington is the only entity that can spend enough to unfreeze the economy. Following the same logic, Chandler voted this summer for a smaller $26 billion state aid package.
In an interview, Barr said the stimulus was a waste as evidenced by a national unemployment rate that rose in August to 9.6 percent.
"Not only has it added nearly a trillion dollars to our national debt, it failed to do the job," Barr said.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office backs Chandler's argument. In an August report, the CBO said the stimulus raised the gross domestic product by up to 4.5 percent and increased the number of people employed by up to 3.3 million, compared to what would have happened without it.
Kentucky got $3 billion from the stimulus. Roughly two-thirds went to Medicaid, which provides health care to one in five Kentuckians, and to public schools, preventing teacher layoffs.
"Without the stimulus funds, those two vital services likely would have experienced significant cuts," Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said. "More than 3,000 Kentuckians are signing up for Medicaid each month thanks to the economic downturn."
Some stimulus funding circled back possibly to benefit Chandler.
The Beshear administration said the Transportation Cabinet was so overwhelmed with $421 million in stimulus money that it established a politically appointed $80,000-a-year job in the cabinet's Office of Budget and Fiscal Management to handle the extra load. Beshear hired Chandler's wife Jennifer. Chandler said he had nothing to do with the hire. Previously, his wife worked for $75,000 a year at Beshear's Department for Local Government.
Also, Chandler supported last winter's $17.5 million stimulus grant to R.J. Corman Railroad Group of Nicholasville, to pay for repairs to the company's rail lines. Chandler attended and shook hands at the company's subsequent job fair that drew 2,600 people.
Company owner Richard Corman held a fund-raising reception for Chandler last year that netted at least $62,000. Corman's Washington lobbyist, Jeff Murray, held a Chandler fund-raiser in July at his office near the U.S. Capitol. The sum Murray raised is not yet available in campaign-finance reports.
Corman and Murray did not return calls seeking comment.
Chandler said his support for Corman is unrelated to the company's fund-raisers for him. The grant came from the U.S. Department of Transportation, he added, not his office.
"They had to win that grant in a competitive effort against other applicants," Chandler said.
Angry coal companies
Kentucky's coal mines aren't in Chandler's district, but the coal industry is a powerful force statewide, and Chandler has angered it.
Chandler co-sponsored the Clean Water Protection Act to end the practice of burying streams with waste from mountaintop removal mining. It's been pending in a House committee for more than a year.
He teamed with House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., on a mine-safety bill that called for stronger safeguards and higher fines for violations. He brought Miller to Lexington to meet with widows of miners killed in accidents. The House passed their bill in 2008, but it died in the Senate.
Then, last year, Chandler voted for a "cap-and-trade" plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and other fossil fuels. The House passed the plan but the Senate removed it from the pending energy bill, effectively killing it for now.
Coal companies have branded Chandler an enemy and financially are backing Barr. They also have discussed tapping their corporate treasuries to defeat Chandler and other Democrats, perhaps through television commercials.
"Our primary focus is on protecting a core job-producing industry from destruction through overzealous and unproductive environmental regulation," Roger Nicholson, senior vice president of International Coal Group, wrote in a Herald-Leader opinion piece in August.
Environmentalists side with Chandler. The Cumberland Sierra Club held a fund-raiser for him in June.
"If he loses, it's going to be a game-changer for this district. We could be making a serious turn to the right here," said club member Rick Clewett.
Chandler said he's not hostile to coal. But it can be mined more safely and used more cleanly, he said. And Kentucky must realize that global warming is real, so burning fossil fuels is going to become less attractive, he added.
Making conversation with WKYT-TV anchor Bill Bryant in July before an on-air interview, Chandler spoke with characteristic frustration about global warming denial in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus.
"If you go to the doctors and nine out of 10 of them tell you that you have cancer, what are you going to think?" Chandler asked. "But it wouldn't be the first time that Kentucky stuck its head in the sand."
Republican advertising shrewdly links Chandler to two Democrats unpopular in Kentucky, President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The National Republican Congressional Committee is running a television spot that shows a whimpering Chihuahua and calls Chandler "Pelosi's lapdog."
The truth is, Chandler usually votes with his party's leadership, as does the rest of Kentucky's congressional delegation. (Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is his party's leadership and votes the GOP line 97 percent of the time.)
But Chandler can be stubbornly unpredictable. As attorney general, he seemed to delight in prosecuting his fellow Democrats, including aides to Gov. Paul Patton and state lawmakers. When Chandler ran for governor in 2003, he later lamented, some Democratic politicians sat on their hands to watch him lose.
Chandler was not beloved in Frankfort, said Damron, the state lawmaker. "There have been times when he wasn't in the best of favor with Democratic leadership," Damron said. "I'd carry a bill on behalf of his attorney general's office and make the strategic decision to not have him come over and testify for it."
Chandler continues to anger all sides on occasion.
He first ran for Congress in early 2004 criticizing President George W. Bush and the Iraq War when both remained popular.
In 2008, as most Kentucky Democrats backed Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination, Chandler endorsed Obama. Months later, when a bipartisan congressional majority voted for the $700 billion bank bailout and called it necessary, Chandler denounced it.
He delighted liberals by voting for cap-and-trade in 2009. This year, he infuriated them by voting against Obama's health care and banking reform laws; he said he didn't think those laws would accomplish what Obama intended.
Ideologically, the 6th district isn't red or blue. Chandler represents a region dominated by Democrats conservative enough to vote Republican in the last three presidential elections and who seem — based on history — happy to rotate his House seat back and forth between the two parties.
He knows he can't make everyone happy. He hopes that he's pleased at least 51 percent.
"I have tried to cast votes that Central Kentucky would approve of," Chandler said earlier this summer. He shrugged. "The enormous political battles and strong feelings right now guaranteed I would be criticized however I voted."
Lexington Herald-Leader | kentucky.comSunday, September 19, 2010 A7