6th District cliffhanger: Inside the numbers that have Chandler on verge of 'extraordinary' win

11/04/2010 06:13 AM

644 votes. That’s the margin to which Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler is clinging now. That’s the number of votes that might allow him to duck out of the Republican winds that swept away at least 60 of his colleagues nationally.

And that number is the key constant in the equation that Republican challenger Andy Barr is wrestling with as he calculates whether to proceed with a recanvass of the votes or perhaps even a recount.

Barr isn’t saying much beyond his declaration late Tuesday night that the race “is not over.”

He released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying: “The people of Central Kentucky have spoken. However, it remains to be seen exactly what they said. The Office of the Secretary of State has yet to receive the returns from many of the counties in the Sixth Congressional District.”

Chandler, meanwhile, declared victory Tuesday night, kind of. You can see his sort-of-victory speech here:

If the margin holds, “it’s an extraordinary win for Congressman Chandler,” Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson said on Pure Politics.

First, let’s put this race into national perspective.

Of the 10 yet-to-be-called races around the country involving Democratic incumbent congressman, the Chandler-Barr race is the third closest. The margin in California’s 11th District is 23 votes, and 500 votes separate the candidates in Illinois’ 8th District. In both cases, the Democrat is behind, as Politico reports.

If he prevails, Chandler would be an endangered species among House Democrats. He was one of 48 Democrats elected in districts that went for Republican John McCain during the 2008 presidential year. Republicans targeted those 48 members heavily from the beginning of the election cycle. Thirty-six of them lost — that’s 75%, the Washington Post reported. Ten won their race and the verdict is still out on Chandler and Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

“To hold it back, it says something about Ben Chandler, and that seat is probably his as long as he wants it,” said Nathan Smith, former Kentucky Democratic Party vice chairman.

Barr underperforms Paul in all 16 counties

Then there’s the trickle down effect from Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race that Chandler seemed to have survived.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul had a better showing over his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, than Barr did in every one of the 16 counties in the 6th District. The biggest differential came in Estill County, normally a reliably Republican County. Barr still pulled in more votes than Chandler, but the margin wasn’t nearly what it was in the U.S. Senate race.

Another key county was Madison, the second most populous county in the district. Paul defeated Conway by by more than 3,300 votes. Barr bested Chandler by 1,162 votes.

Those two were key bellwether counties in this particular race, as cn|2 Politics reported over the weekend.

Our numbers guru in the cn|2 Election Center put together this chart to compare Barr’s performance to that of Paul in the 16 counties, as well as how Chandler fared as compared to Bruce Lunsford, who narrowly won the 6th District on his way to losing the 2008 U.S. Senate race to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. Check out the chart:

For Chandler, he dramatically under-performed in Lincoln County when compared to Lunsford in 2008. (But it’s worth noting that Lincoln County is split between the 1st and 6th District and the numbers above reflect the full county’s results.)

The Chandler brand name and power of incumbency

As much as Paul was a part of of the national buzz and post-election storyline Wednesday, the Chandler-Barr race was the talk of the state politicos — both Democrats and Republicans.

On Pure Politics, Republican Marcus Carey, publisher of BluegrassBulletin.com, said the name recognition and his network of contacts as a three-term congressman was too much for Barr to overcome.

“I said it would be very difficult to beat a Chandler in that district,” Carey said. “He has maximized the power of incumbency.”

To examine that power of the Chandler name and incumbency, let’s go back to Estill County in the southeast corner of the 6th District. The sign announcing your arrival to the county declares, “Welcome to Estill County where the Bluegrass kisses the mountains.”

And the bridge that crosses the Kentucky River to connect western Estill County to downtown Irvine and Ravenna was built in 1939 with state funds directed by then-governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler, Sr.

“The older people remember that,” said Janice Bush, a retired middle school teacher. “Estill County was full of ‘Happy Chandler Republicans’ because of that bridge.”

Seventy years later, Chandler has helped divert federal money for a new sewer plant in the county and money for a park. While not spending federal money has been a favorite talking point of Republicans, including Barr, many voters still like it when that money is invested in their community.

And Chandler didn’t shy away from stressing that particular part of his job on the campaign trail.

“You all know that as long as I’m in office, despite the fact that I represent Lexington and Frankfort and Richmond, I’ll make sure Estill County gets the best of it and isn’t forgotten about,” Chandler told a group of about a dozen supporters at Michael’s Restaurant in Ravenna.

Chandler said he’s strategically stressed his ability to bring back federal money as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“It helps in some places, and it depends on where it is,” he said. “But we’ve got to do more than that. That’s not enough on its own. It never would be.”

- Ryan Alessi

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