Politics & Government

Democrat Elisabeth Jensen faces tough battle to unseat U.S. Rep. Andy Barr


Elisabeth Jensen sounds like a Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan as she declares "this is going to be the big blue year."

But Jensen's enthusiastic optimism isn't about the Cats winning a ninth national championship. It's about Democrats winning elections.

With only a few days left before the candidate filing deadline, Jensen is positioned as Democrats' best hope to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, an uphill effort she plans to formally kick off with a rally and volunteer training session on Saturday.

After Lexington businessman Joe Palumbo withdrew from the race in November, Jensen moved into the frontrunner spot, but she stands at a significant fundraising disadvantage against Barr, the freshman congressman who unseated Democrat Ben Chandler in 2012.

At the end of 2013, Barr's campaign had raised about $1.3 million and had about $900,000 in cash.

Jensen raised about $325,000, including $100,000 in the last quarter and a personal loan of $100,000 to the campaign, which she said demonstrates "I will do what it takes to represent them."

The only other Democrat in the race is retired Lexington engineer Geoff Young, a former Green Party member who hasn't reported raising any money for the campaign.

A former Walt Disney official and long time enthusiast of horse racing and riding, Jensen moved to Lexington 13 years ago from California to manage Thoroughbred owner Tracy Farmer's racing stables.

"Somehow I just think I was always meant to be here," she said.

While Jensen, an Indiana native, started riding at age 10, she laughed when recalling sending Farmer her resume "kind of on a whim and never thinking he'd call me in a million years because I had absolutely no experience in that area whatsoever."

Jensen had visited Central Kentucky for the Keeneland sales, and on one trip, while driving through Versailles, she said she "fell in love with this place."

"And I thought, 'I don't want to leave. I don't even want to get back on the plane,'" she said.

Democrats on board?

In a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader, Jensen said she can win in November and is undeterred by Barr's fundraising advantage.

National Democrats are salivating at the prospect of retaking Barr's seat in a district that was redrawn to be safer for Chandler, but they have been reluctant to embrace Jensen's candidacy ahead of next week's filing deadline.

Jensen said she has spoken recently with officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and they want to visit Lexington to talk about her campaign.

She declined to speculate about whether any other candidates might enter the race in the next few days, saying that she's "focused on my race."

At this point, Kentucky Democrats appear to be on board. Jensen said State Auditor Adam Edelen, a likely gubernatorial candidate next year, is hosting a fundraiser for her in February, and Attorney General Jack Conway and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, are co-hosting one later this month.

Louisville attorney Jennifer Moore, a former chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said Jensen is perfectly suited to win the seat.

"What's really exciting is with Alison Lundergan Grimes at the top of the ticket, we really believe women will turn Kentucky blue again," said Moore, the chairwoman of Emerge Kentucky, which encourages Democratic women to run for office. "So we're looking forward to that across the state and in the 6th District."

Democrats have a strong belief that Barr is vulnerable, given the political make-up of the district — registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 59 percent to 33 percent — and Barr's voting record — the Democratic group Americans United said this week Barr votes in line with Tea Party Republicans 83 percent of the time.

"Andy, in the time he's been in Congress already, with the votes he's taken with Hurricane Sandy, cutting food stamps out of the farm bill, voting against unemployment insurance, he has shown already he is willing to throw those people who are struggling under the bus whenever he gets a chance," Jensen said.

A spokesperson for Barr declined to comment for this story.

'We'll get there'

For Jensen, days running for Congress start with a walk alongside her deputy campaign manager. That's the title Jensen and her staff have bestowed on Will, her 9-year-old son.

Jensen and her son, who is autistic with special needs, walk to school in the morning when the weather allows.

His struggles motivate her candidacy, she said.

"He works so hard, and every single day he gets up and he has to deal with more challenges than any of us will just to get dressed and just to go to school," Jensen said. "He has a smile on his face every day and goes to school with so much enthusiasm and so much excitement, and that motivates me every day to get out there and try to make the world a better place for him."

As the co-founder, president and executive director of The Race for Education, a Lexington-based nonprofit that helps with financial aid and academic development programs, Jensen is looking to build her campaign around jobs, education and workforce development.

"I feel like most of our country has lost access to the American dream," Jensen said, recalling her grandparents' ability to buy a home and provide an education for their children despite working in meat-packing factories in Indiana.

On health care, a dangerous issue for Democrats in Kentucky despite the early success of Gov. Steve Beshear's Kynect insurance exchange, Jensen said she is "proud" of Beshear for opting to set up a Kentucky exchange as part of President Barack Obama's health care law, rattling off the state's enrollment numbers.

Jensen said she thinks the program should be more user-friendly for businesses — her campaign staff has signed up for health insurance through the Kentucky exchange — but she is squarely on the opposite side of the issue from Barr, who has repeatedly voted to repeal the law.

"I would never want to see somebody pull that out from underneath them," Jensen said of the more than 160,000 Kentuckians who have signed up for Medicaid or private health care plans through the exchange. "It is not perfect legislation, but I think there are things we can do to fix it."

On Saturday, before her campaign kick-off event at the Barrel House in Lexington, Jensen will meet with her county campaign chairs, one for each of the district's 19 counties, to go over her positions on the issues, answer questions and conduct social media training.

As for money and name recognition, Jensen is short on details about how she plans to catch up with Barr, but long on optimism for November.

"We'll get there," she said. "I'm confident we'll get there."