Politics & Government

Chandler-Barr race for Kentucky's 6th congressional district seat is tightening, analysts say

Andy Barr, left, and Ben Chandler
Andy Barr, left, and Ben Chandler

Two leading political scorekeepers have decided it's less likely that U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, will keep his job after the Nov. 6 election.

On Thursday, the Cook Political Report changed its rating for Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District from "leans Democrat" to "toss up." The Rothenberg Political Report followed suit Friday, switching the race from "leans Democrat" to "toss up/tilt Democrat."

The analysts cite superior campaign fund-raising in recent weeks by Republican challenger Andy Barr, a Lexington lawyer.

In 2010, Chandler beat Barr by 647 votes.

"We're likely headed for another photo finish in Lexington," the Cook Political Report wrote.

The analysts also say Chandler derailed himself for much of September with a controversy over Western Kentucky coal executive Heath Lovell, who dressed in miners' clothes to criticize Chandler for being anti-coal in a Barr ad.

The next set of television ads from Chandler and Barr focused on Lovell and whether he's actually a coal miner, not on the candidates and their policy stances. Lovell, a state-certified miner, threatened to sue Chandler for slander.

"Polling on both sides of the aisle show a tightening race, and Republicans believe coal has become Rep. Ben Chandler's Achilles heel after the ad flap in the district," the Rothenberg Political Report wrote. "Andy Barr harnessed that into a good fund-raising quarter, besting Chandler. For much of the cycle, Republicans were optimistic but it looked like Chandler was going to survive. Now there is specific evidence that his re-election is in doubt, and the trendline is not good at all for the congressman."

Other political scorekeepers, including Roll Call and The Hill, are keeping the race in their "leans Democrat" column. But the momentum right now favors Barr, said University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss.

"The big difference is what's going on up-ticket in the presidential campaigns," Voss said. "Obviously, Mitt Romney is pulling ahead in the polls and creating enthusiasm among some Republican voters that wasn't there before. That's going to affect voter turnout. The most important thing for Andy Barr right now is how Mitt Romney's doing."

In an interview Friday, Barr said he's not surprised that people see the race tightening.

Barr said he visits several communities in the 6th District every day, and many Democrats and independents who voted for Chandler in 2010 tell him they won't do so again.

"They tell me the problems we faced two years ago are worsening," Barr said. "And they're getting to know me, they're hearing the message that I'm going to focus on jobs, on creating jobs. I think people who wanted to give Chandler one last chance have decided it's time to bring in someone new."

The Chandler campaign said it's not worried. As of Sept. 30, Chandler had raised more money than Barr overall ($2 million to Barr's $1.8 million) and he had more on hand for the final weeks ($833,000 to Barr's $789,000), said Chandler spokeswoman Meghan Groob.

"We knew it would tighten. But we're not terribly concerned," Groob said.

The Chandler campaign doesn't regret its counter-attack on Lovell, the coal executive from the Barr ad, Groob said. The United Mine Workers endorsed Chandler because actual miners know he supports safe, responsible mining of coal, and it was unfair for a coal executive to dress like a miner and accuse Chandler of being anti-coal, she said.

"It was just flatly misleading to suggest that coal miners are against Chandler when this guy isn't even a miner," Groob said. "We'd all like to be focusing on the issues. But when people come at you with blatant falsehoods and attacks, you have to come back at them."

Chandler and Barr will have their only debate of the campaign Oct. 29 on Kentucky Educational Television.

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