Ben Chandler and the moderate challenge

07/02/2010 08:57 AM

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler

During a question and answer session at a Commerce Lexington luncheon in January, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler explained how he saw moderates from both parties being squeezed out by the “purists” from the far right or far left wings.

“So whenever I reach out I know I am going to catch hell for doing it, whenever I try to do anything with the other party,” he said. “I think it needs to be done. I think it needs to be done on a regular basis.”

Chandler demonstrated that most recently this week when he and 18 other Democrats joined most Republicans in voting against the financial regulation bill in the U.S. House. Chandler explained the “No” vote by saying he thought the legislation gave inadequate protections for consumers and failed to address the root causes of the financial crisis.

That prompted some mild criticism of Chandler, as he predicted. The liberal-leaning PageoneKentucky’s round-up of news items the next morning, for instance, was titled “Ben Chandler Still Pretending to be a Democrat.”

Chandler said in an interview with cn|2 Politics last week that he will continue to take votes on a case-by-case basis.

He has voted with the Democratic majority on key legislation, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 aimed at bolstering the economy and an environmental regulation bill that sought to cap industry and utility pollution emissions, nicknamed “cap and trade.” And he voted in the minority on the health care reform bill, which particularly angered liberals, as well as against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, also called the bank bailout bill.

In some ways, that makes Chandler’s vote that more powerful as a potential swing vote and makes it tougher for Republicans to criticize him on legislation that a majority of the GOP opposed too, such as the health care bill. But Chandler also risks ticking off loyal Democrats.

And all this comes as Chandler faces his toughest re-election fight since winning the seat in a 2004 special election. The National Republican Congressional Committee recently bumped up Chandler’s GOP challenger, Lexington lawyer Andy Barr, to its highest tier of candidates, known as “Young Guns.”

But the 6th Congressional district has historically been moderate. Voters in the central Kentucky district have alternated between electing Republicans and Democrats to represent them in Congress. And in the 2008 election, Republican John McCain beat Barack Obama in the 6th District by 70,000 votes while Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford received nearly 5,000 more votes than Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate.

With the general election season just getting started, it remains to be seen what tactics and approach Barr will take in arguing to voters that Chandler should be replaced. And it’s unclear whether those liberals who are mad at Chandler will vote for a Republican, not vote at all in that race or end up voting — perhaps begrudgingly — for Chandler in November.

Chandler said he hopes to appeal to voters with argument that he is independent and more interested in policy than voting in lock-step with his party.

“You can be sure that nothing is going to get done if purists control the thing,” Chandler told the Lexington business group in January. “Nothing has ever gotten done in the history of this country without compromise.”

- Ryan Alessi


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