Politics & Government

With a Tea Party voting record, Andy Barr works overtime on constituent outreach

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington represents Kentucky's 6th District.
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington represents Kentucky's 6th District.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr could only laugh in response when Jane Friedman of Lexington stood up at his town hall meeting in Winchester last week.

"You're not under a rock like your predecessor was," Friedman said.

Barr's predecessor, of course, was former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, and Barr seems determined to avoid Chandler's fate, making constituent outreach a focus while aiming for re-election next year.

Barr did 20 events in the 6th Congressional District last week, touring Ale-8-One, taking questions from University of Kentucky students about the National Security Agency and attending town halls like the one in Winchester.

"I'm not really focused on what other people did or didn't do," Barr told the Lexington Herald-Leader last week. "That's not why I'm doing it. It makes me a better representative. Frankly, it's my favorite part of the job."

In a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 59 percent to 33 percent, Barr might well need to put in the hours and the miles to offset a voting record that mirrors his Tea Party colleagues in the U.S. House.

Since joining Congress at the beginning of the year, Barr has at times sounded more like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul than a congressman representing a moderate district.

From criticisms of Hurricane Sandy relief to votes against food stamp assistance to his unwavering stance against Obamacare and subsequent votes that ensured a government shutdown last month, Barr routinely votes with colleagues on the far right.

In Winchester, Barr continued down that road, blasting President Barack Obama over Benghazi, the health care law and the Dodd-Frank banking reform law.

And he doesn't modify his message to fit the audience, maintaining the same tone and positions with UK students as he did with a man who wanted to know why nobody was talking about impeaching President Barack Obama.

Barr takes on all comers, even taking questions at three separate events last Thursday from former Green Party and now would-be Democratic opponent Geoff Young, who asked about Barr's support of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan.

Throughout the shutdown and hours before it began, Barr told the Herald-Leader that he was voting the way his constituents demanded, including on a vote against the final deal that reopened the government and extended the nation's debt ceiling.

The congressman said in an interview after Thursday's Winchester event that he uses such events, along with frequent tele-town halls he does from Washington, to stay in touch with what voters in his district are thinking.

"Not everybody thinks the same thing, but you get a general flavor," Barr said.

Washington Democrats continue to view Barr's seat as a pick-up opportunity, arranging protests at his office during the shutdown and running online ads against the congressman, including a new one on Facebook that started Tuesday.

Barr's votes during the government shutdown epitomize the "brand of reckless and irresponsible politics that Kentucky residents deplore about Congress," said David Bergstein, a regional spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Congressman Barr's stubborn allegiance to these reckless Washington political tactics that hurt hardworking families makes this a race that Democrats can win," Bergstein said.

Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the University of Kentucky's political science department, said Barr clearly has weaknesses Democrats can exploit, but he "remains the sitting representative to beat."

"As vulnerable as he is, he seems to be running scared and seeking every opportunity to display his knowledge of his office and the Congress," Yanarella said. "His votes may come back to haunt him, but it is going to take a very deft Democratic opponent who can shake Andy Barr out of his smooth-talking, car salesman banter about an austerity budget approach and a skepticism toward government to constituents whose interests are not aligned with Tea Party-like agenda items."

The Democratic Party, however, appears to be having trouble coalescing around a challenger. A number of Democrats in Lexington and Washington believe another candidate will enter the field after Lexington businessman Joe Palumbo withdrew from the race last week.

In the current field, education advocate Elisabeth Jensen appears to be the frontrunner. She told the Herald-Leader in a statement that she also finds a lot of value in traveling around the district.

"As I have visited nearly all of the counties in the district in the last two months, the importance of being present and in the community is something I have heard clearly — and it is a vital part of my commitment both in the campaign, and in my plans as a member of Congress," Jensen said. "What it doesn't make up for is a voting record totally at odds with the needs of the people of the district — like voting to keep the government shut down and risking default — while doing nothing to create the jobs, workforce development and educational opportunities that people need."

For some though, Barr's outreach is helping him win votes, even as Election Day is almost a year away.

"He always makes himself available, and I think that's really important," said Jeff Masters, who attended the Winchester meeting.

Masters is supporting Barr's re-election effort "whole-heartedly," and he credits Barr's outreach for a big part of that.

"The man who shows up at my doorstep and is willing to talk with me is much more likely to get my support than the man that does not," Masters said.

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