By John Cheves – firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, is barely clinging to his House seat as the Nov. 2 election approaches, a new Kentucky Poll shows.
Forty-eight percent of likely voters surveyed in Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District said they would vote for Chandler, compared to 44 percent for Andy Barr, his Republican challenger. Eight percent were undecided.
Chandler’s four-point lead is within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Chandler also should worry about other numbers in the poll, said J. Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C., which conducted a district-wide telephone survey of 500 registered voters Oct. 15 to 19 for the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV.
Only 46 percent of voters said they approved of Chandler’s job performance as congressman while just 42 percent said they held a favorable opinion of him.
The fact that Chandler fell under 50 percent on all those questions — after four terms in Congress and two decades in Kentucky politics — suggests that many undecided voters would consider a change, he said. These sorts of numbers often precede an incumbent getting the boot, he said.
“The big picture is, this seat is definitely in play,” Coker said. “Chandler may still pull it out. But he’s going to really have to work for it in these final days.”
Nationally, Democrats are expected to suffer at the polls because Americans are unhappy with their leadership of Congress as the economy continues to sputter, said Transylvania University political scientist Don Dugi.
“It’s just unfortunate timing for Chandler,” Dugi said. “Individual members of Congress aren’t fighting their own local battles, really, they’re fighting a national battle where there is a wave of hostility against the incumbents this year.”
“In any other election year, without the protests and the wave effect of the Tea Party people, Andy Barr would not have been a serious candidate and Ben Chandler would have won re-election again quite handily,” Dugi said. “But this is not a typical election year.”
Since winning his seat in a 2004 special election, Chandler has been popular enough to routinely trounce opponents. The Republican Party didn’t even field a challenger in 2006.
This year, some Barr supporters who participated in the poll said their philosophy was ABC: “Anybody But Chandler.”
“I like Barr because, first off, Barr isn’t Chandler,” Jerry Hale of Lexington said Friday. “He would not be a supporter of cap-and-trade, like Chandler is, and that’s pretty critical for Kentucky and for the country. He’s also against the whole Obamacare thing and he’ll try to get that taken down.”
Advertising by Barr and national Republicans has highlighted Chandler’s vote for a “cap-and-trade” plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and other fossil fuels. The House passed the plan but the Senate removed it from the pending energy bill, effectively killing it for now.
On the health insurance overhaul, Chandler bucked his party’s leaders and voted against the plan as it became law earlier this year.
Other poll participants said they’re sticking with the incumbent.
“Mr. Chandler is a fairly reliable congressman who sometimes votes against the way I’d like him to because he has to protect his seat, and I understand that,” said Roger Anderson of Nicholasville. “Mr. Barr seems like he would be darned dangerous. He seems like he would fit into the Tea Party model, the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party.”
In the poll, Chandler did better in urban Fayette County than in the suburban and rural counties ringing Lexington. Chandler enjoyed an 11-point advantage in Lexington but was in a dead-heat with Barr in the remaining 15 counties of the district.
Chandler won support from 70 percent of Democrats, who dominate the region in voter registration. However, 22 percent of Democrats, or nearly one in four, said they would cross party lines to vote for Barr, who also won 79 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of independents.
Asked their opinion of the candidates, 42 percent said they viewed Chandler favorably, 31 percent said they viewed him unfavorably, 26 percent were neutral and 1 percent didn’t recognize his name. For Barr, it was 31 percent favorable, 31 percent unfavorable, 30 percent neutral and 8 percent who didn’t recognize his name.
The equal unfavorable ratings is interesting given the ceaseless mudslinging on television that has come to define both campaigns in this race, said Dugi of Transylvania University.
As of Friday, Chandler’s commercials accused Barr of having “covered up a criminal conviction” (Barr got caught as a 19-year-old college student trying to use a fake I.D. during spring break). Barr’s commercials accused Chandler of taking a “payoff” for his vote for the stimulus package last year in the form of an $80,000 state job for his wife (Chandler denies having anything to do with the job).
Dugi said politicians aim for the “weak identifiers” — voters without strong ties to any party or candidate — by blaring negative messages they hope will ruin their opponents’ image. In theory, disaffected voters will flee into the arms of the candidate whose attacks were best, Dugi said.
“Of course, if enough weak identifiers get discouraged by all of the attack advertising and say ‘Screw it, I’m staying home on Election Day,’ that backfires on Democrats and helps Republicans because Republican voters tend to show greater turnout,” Dugi said.
Another possible boon for Barr is Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate and a favorite of the Tea Party movement, Dugi said.
Paul is staying ahead of Democratic Senate nominee Jack Conway in most statewide polls, including a five-point lead in the Kentucky Poll this week. If enough Republicans are enthusiastic about Paul and turn out in droves to vote, it stands to reason that some in the 6th District will reach down and push the button for Barr, too, Dugi said.
“I think Rand Paul could have coattails,” he said.