Five X-factors that will determine the Chandler-Barr race in Ky's 6th Congressional District

11/05/2012 07:17 AM

New district. Same expected nail-biter.

But will the outcome in the 6th Congressional District be different this year than in 2010 when Democratic Congressman Ben Chandler escaped with a 648-vote win over Republican Andy Barr?

It’s possible.

There’s no way around it, redistricting hurt Barr. But it wasn’t because the district absorbed counties to the east with majorities of registered Democrats, like Fleming, Nicholas and Wolfe counties. Barr has shrewdly found a way to connect with many of them (see No. 4).

The bigger factor was the addition by subtraction for Chandler when the legislature agreed to lop off a big chunk of Barr’s natural geographic base in the old district: Garrard, Mercer, Boyle and 10 conservative precincts in Jessamine County.

Because of that, it’s a whole different race than it was in 2010. But it’s likely to be just as close. Here are the X-factors that have kept it close are worth keeping in mind as Tuesday’s returns roll in:

1. Can Barr split the difference between his 2010 performance and Rand Paul’s?

In 2010, Barr underperformed relative to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul in each of the 6th District counties at the time, including seven in which he was more than 4 percentage points off Paul’s performance, according to a Pure Politics analysis at the time.

But those numbers need a translation into 2012. First, it’s a presidential year, which means many more voters. A Pure Politics analysis this fall shows that if voters in the 19 counties that now make up the 6th District turn out at the same rate they did for the last presidential election in 2008, then 337,621 Central Kentuckians will cast ballots on Tuesday. That’s nearly 100,000 more voters than in 2010.

If Chandler and Barr receive the same percentages of the vote that they did in the 12 returning counties (and substituting the percentages Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway received in the new 7 counties during the 2010 U.S. Senate race), then Chandler would win by about 9,000 votes (173,270 to 164,330).

If Barr performed as well as Paul did in the 19 counties, then Barr would win by almost 11,000 votes (174,224 to 163,397).

The question is whether Barr can split the difference. And if he can, that would mean a narrow win of about 1,000 votes — even if he loses Fayette County by 4,000 votes. Check out the chart below:

2. The Randolph Vance effect

Two years ago, it was Barr vs. Chandler. Randolph Vance, a convenience store clerk from Lexington, siphoned off 22 votes. Even with Chandler’s razor-thin margin of victory, those votes weren’t enough to matter. (Another write-in candidate got 225 votes).

But this time, Vance qualified as an independent candidate on the ballot. It’s anyone’s guess what effect his limited campaign may have. But needless to say, even drawing 1 or 2 percent of the vote could be enough to swing this election.

For voters who are paying close attention, Vance is the only candidate in the race who supports gay marriage, which could potentially pull liberal voters who are unhappy Chandler hasn’t joined other Democrats, like U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, on that front. Or Vance could draw anti-Chandler votes away from Barr.

Of course, an equally plausible theory is that Vance could pull the same share of votes from both of his opponents, attracting voters who got fed up with both camps’ commercials.

3. Presidential crossover

Yes, President Barack Obama isn’t popular in many quarters in Kentucky. But Obama doesn’t have to carry the 6th Congressional District for Chandler to win.

Voters in the 19 counties that make up the new 6th Congressional District went overwhelmingly for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 but swung back to Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford in the next race on the ballot.

McCain defeated Obama with about 167,000 votes to roughly 138,000 for Obama in the new 6th District’s counties, while Lunsford got 10,000 more votes than Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, 157,000 to 147,000, according to the Pure Politics analysis.

One could argue that Chandler is better known in the Central Kentucky region than Lunsford, a Kenton County native who has spent most of his adult life in Louisville. Then again, the enthusiasm for Obama is noticeably down this year than four years ago. Underscoring that fact, many of the Democratic voters — especially in the new counties added to the district — preferred “uncommitted” to Obama in the May primary.

4. The power of coal

Not even some high-ranking Republicans, at first, saw the strategic value of Barr hammering on the coal issue. Aside from a few small mines in rural Wolfe and Menifee counties, the 6th District doesn’t feature any major mining operations.

But many voters on the eastern edge of the district — including many of the new counties added to the district — have ties to Eastern Kentucky counties that do or to the mining industry in some way.

Barr talks compellingly about companies in Nicholas, Fleming and Bourbon counties, for instance, that have seen cutbacks because of their dealings with mines that are closing or dramatically scaling back production. Whether that has more to do with federal permitting or market forces such as the low price of natural gas is still open to debate.

But the issue has allowed Barr to connect with new voters in counties that, by registration alone, should have given Chandler an advantage. Perhaps more importantly for Barr, it’s given him a way to try to link Chandler to the Obama administration.

5. Don’t worry, use Happy

Chandler is closing the election with positive ads, hoping to quell the frustration of negative-ad-weary voters. Among the closing arguments is a commercial featuring his grandfather, the late A.B. “Happy” Chandler, singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

It’s an appeal to older voters who remember Chandler. While most who would remember the elder Chandler fondly would likely already be prepared to vote for Ben Chandler, it is a reminder to those in counties like Estill about the power of the family name.

Remember, Estill County was where Ben Chandler over-performed the most relative to the results of that year’s U.S. Senate race. Chandler held Barr more than six percentage points below what Paul received from voters in Estill County. And it just so happens that the bridge over the Kentucky River in the middle of the county was built by Happy Chandler, a fact many of the older voters in the county are happy to point out.

About Ryan Alessi

Ryan Alessi joined cn|2 in May 2010 as senior managing editor and host of Pure Politics. He has covered politics for more than 10 years, including 7 years as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Follow Ryan on Twitter @cn2Alessi. Ryan can be reached at 502-792-1135 or ryan.alessi@twcnews.com.

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