Andy Barr couldn’t get a word in.
It was the first time the U.S. Representative from Lexington had returned to his district to face the public since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, and it wasn’t a warm homecoming as he stood in front of a group of more than 100 people in a small room in the Montgomery County Courthouse early on a Wednesday morning.
The crowd booed and jeered while the Republican lawmaker worked his way through his talking points, touching on his opposition to the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the Affordable Care Act.
Over the next few months, he would host two more town-hall style events, one in Richmond and one in Lexington. Each time, more people came to express their opposition to Barr’s agenda in Washington. Undeterred, Barr said he was even more committed to that agenda.
“Some of you agree with what I’m doing in Washington,” Barr said in Richmond, where the crowd often booed him. “A lot of you do.”
That statement will be put to the test in November.
As the Trump presidency has motivated and mobilized Democrats across the country, Barr has drawn three potential competitive election opponents, each of which would be the toughest competition he has faced since he was elected in 2012. The 6th Congressional District, which sprawls over 19 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky and contains the second largest city in Kentucky, includes the type of suburban areas that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting this year, making it a focus for Democratic campaign funds.
“You add all these things up and it makes for a tougher race than he’s been in before,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political analyst from Kentucky.
Enough to beat Barr?
James Sargent, chairman of the Anderson County Democratic Party, said it’s easy to tell when a candidate is vulnerable: all you have to do is look at how many people are running against him.
Since he defeated former Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler in 2012, Barr has seen limited competition. But starting in 2017, as Barr received vocal opposition from the left, one by one several strong Democratic candidates entered the race.
First, state Sen. Reggie Thomas announced in July. He was quickly followed by former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who drew national attention with a slick campaign announcement and compelling background story. Then, after months of encouragement from U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray jumped in.
“I think he’s more vulnerable right now than he’s ever been since he’s been elected,” Sargent said of Barr.
Sargent isn’t alone in that feeling. Shortly after her announcement, national money came pouring into the McGrath campaign. She was soon touring the country, making appearances on Chelsea Handler’s show “Chelsea” and at Harvard forums, collecting checks from the likes of George Clooney and Rosie O’Donnell. When Gray announced, touting a strong approval rating for his job as mayor, the University of Virginia Center for Politics changed its rating for the district from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.”
Those Democratic candidates will likely benefit from the national political landscape. The president’s party typically suffers during midterm elections, but 2018 is shaping up to look worse for the majority party than usual.
Trump is popular in the 6th Congressional District — he won here by more than 15 points in 2016 — but with the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s flirtations with a trade war that could negatively affect the Kentucky bourbon industry, many question whether enthusiasm for Trump in 2016 will carry over into 2018.
According to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight, Democrats outperformed the typical party line vote in all seven U.S. House and U.S. Senate special elections in 2017. That trend is likely to continue into 2018. The Real Clear Politics average on the generic ballot, a poll that asks people if they’ll support the Republican in their district or the Democrat, has Democrats up 7 percentage points on Republicans.
There has been no independent public polling in the 6th District, but Democrats see 2018 as a unique opportunity to unseat Barr.
“I don’t know if it’s enough to get him beat,” said George Lusby, the Democratic judge-executive in Scott County. “But it’s enough to make you think he can be beat.”
Touting tax cuts?
The Gray campaign has said it has noticed Republican trackers — people who record Gray in hopes of catching him saying something embarrassing — at several events. In fundraising letters, Barr has referenced McGrath, citing the support she’s received from U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and the money she spent on ads during the NCAA Tournament.
After the Oscars, he also posted on Twitter about the award show’s declining audience, blaming “liberal celebrities” Rosie O’Donnell and Chelsea Handler. Neither O’Donnell nor Handler were nominated for an Oscar in 2018 and it is unclear if either attended the ceremony. Both, however, have offered their support for McGrath.
When asked about the Tweet and whether Barr feels more vulnerable this year than he has in past elections, Barr campaign political director Jonathan Van Norman instead responded with a list of legislation Barr has proposed while in office.
“Our campaign’s coalition of conservatives, independents, and common-sense Democrats knows how important Andy’s voice has been in Washington, and stands ready to defeat whoever comes out of a divisive and increasingly expensive Democrat primary,” Van Norman said.
With more cash on hand than any of his Democratic opponents, and facing a poorly-funded primary opponent, Barr has continued to raise money for the fall. He also flew with Vice President Mike Pence to a rally in Versailles, collecting a check for $56,423 from Pence’s joint fundraising committee with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also has added Barr to its list of incumbents to protect in 2018 and the House Republican Leadership’s Super PAC has scheduled advertisements worth $1.8 million for the race.
Barr has enthusiastically supported the two most controversial measures raised in the House of Representatives in 2017. First, he staunchly defended Republican attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, even while public opinion of the proposal plummeted as the bill failed in the Senate. Then he supported the Republican tax cuts.
While it will take time to understand the full implications of the tax changes, both Republicans and Democrats have already massaged their talking points on the issue.
Barr can tout that he helped cut taxes for Kentuckians, citing examples of how the bill has already helped specific people, such as businesses giving bonuses to their workers as a result of the corporate tax break.
Democrats, though, say the tax cuts focused on the wealthy and that bonuses for everyday employees aren’t a sign of wage growth: they’re just one time bonuses that might not show up again in people’s paychecks the next year.
Despite signs that the tax cuts didn’t make much of a difference in a competitive Pennsylvania special election for Congress, many Republican strategists still see the tax cut as a way to win in November.
“I think every Republican congressman should run on the tax cuts,” Jennings said. “As long as the economy is humming along you can point to the tax cuts and the rollback of regulations.”
A mirage for national Democrats?
As Barr faces his most difficult political test since taking office, Republican politicos aren’t sounding the alarm just yet.
The 6th District had 91,420 more registered Democrats than Republicans as of March 14, but Barr has increased his share of the vote in each of his elections. In 2016, he won 61 percent of the vote over Democrat Nancy Jo Kemper.
Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said the district is a mirage for national Democrats.
“This is a seat where people in D.C. see a college town and think it’s a winnable district,” Watson said. “And it’s not. Demographically, this district is not.”
Watson notes that winning Lexington isn’t enough to win the entire district and that there are more votes in the rural areas, which tend to be more conservative.
Jennings argues Barr is a strong incumbent who has plenty of money to spend on the race and that, in general, Kentucky voters like the direction of the country.
“This is not a district that is accidentally held by a Republican,” Jennings said. “This is a district that is correctly held by a Republican.”