Politics & Government

Q and A: Behind the scenes of Elisabeth Jensen's failed run for Congress

Elisabeth Jensen, a Lexington Democrat who ran for Congress this year, spoke with the Herald-Leader last week about that experience. Some of the questions and answers have been shortened for brevity.

Q. In 1998, seven Democrats ran for this U.S. House seat, including two state senators, two future mayors of Lexington and the Madison County attorney. This time, the Democratic primary was you and retired engineer Geoff Young, whom you easily defeated. Where were Central Kentucky's other Democrats?

Elisabeth Jensen: "I thought, 'There's gotta be a lot of people out there who are thinking about this race.' There wasn't. I talked to (state Auditor) Adam (Edelen) who lives in this district and who would have been a likely candidate. He said 'No way.' I talked to (eventual U.S. Senate nominee) Alison (Lundergan Grimes), who would have been a likely candidate, and she said 'No way, not interested.' ...

"I was sure that other people would get in this race. When I stuck my toe in the water, I didn't expect to get in that deep. I got into it really thinking of this as a long-term plan, to position myself for down the road. The day of the filing deadline, we were refreshing the browser on the Secretary of State's website because we were sure that somebody else was gonna get into the race. Nobody did."

Q. Were you disappointed to get so little help from the Kentucky Democratic Party or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?

"I really thought that we would see something from the DCCC. Because this is a winnable seat, if not this year then next time. When we did our last poll, which had us within single digits and which had me with a 49-percent name ID — and a 49-percent name ID is huge — we were hoping at that time that they would get in. And they had been on board from an advisory capacity, and they were involved day to day in our conference calls and our fundraising.

"But that was the same time they started seeing polls from incumbents who were way down, and they focused all their interest in the last three weeks on protecting their incumbents. Where all their incumbents were on a downward spiral, we were on an upward trajectory. If things could have been different, I think there was an opportunity."

Q. You and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, did six debates or joint appearances, several of them televised. Was any of that difficult?

"Two days before the EKU (Eastern Kentucky University) debate I got sick and I lost my voice, so we couldn't even do debate prep those couple days. And I had carefully made cards with all of the legislation that he had introduced and how many co-sponsors each one had and the likelihood of each one being passed, and just a lot of other facts that I would need to refer to, and my opening and closing comments. ...

"I was so tired and thirsty that I asked someone to get me a Diet Coke before I went backstage. They gave me the bottle, I dropped it down into my purse and of course the cap fell off. (Laughs). So the bag with all my notes in it was soaked with Diet Coke. My mom and my campaign manager were backstage with a hair dryer trying to dry my notes out. ... I had been so sick, I was just happy that night that I made it through the evening and didn't faint or pass out."

Q. Unlike most Democrats this year, you enthusiastically supported the Affordable Care Act. That is becoming Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's signature policy as he implements health care reform through Kynect. Why didn't we see Beshear, who is popular, throw his arm around you at a bunch of Jensen campaign events?

"I will tell you, we didn't have a lot of events for him to appear at. He did an event with me in Mount Sterling. But my campaign team and my finance team felt my time would be much better spent on the phone than in going out and doing events. So we did very few actual events where the governor could come out and stump for me. But he did send out several emails endorsing me and thanking me for supporting Kentucky's Kynect."

Q. Speaking of what your team wanted: About half of your staff quit a month before the election, including your campaign manager and your finance director. What happened there?

"We just had a disagreement on what it was gonna take to get across the finish line. At the end of the day, it's my name that's out there, I'm the one that's gotta pay the bills when it's all over. We just had a disagreement on how we're gonna get there — where we spend our time, our money, what our focus was gonna be. I don't want to rehash all of it, but I needed to be focused on beating Andy Barr, not convincing my team on how. It was becoming too much of a distraction day in, day out. ...

"The challenge for me, running — I've run my own business for 12 years and managed big businesses. And in a campaign, as a candidate, you're supposed to stand back and trust your professionals, your campaign manager, your fundraiser, to make all these decisions. And for me, it was very hard to just let go and let my team handle it."

Q. Barr carried every county in the 6th Congressional District and won with 60 percent of the vote. Did you think you would win?

"I thought there was a very small chance we could win. It was very unlikely. ... I would have liked to have lost by a little bit less. But I know I worked as hard as I could."

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