Painful lessons of 2003 pay off in 2010 for Chandler

11/15/2010 05:46 AM

The political drubbing Ben Chandler took in the 2003 governor’s race may have saved his congressional career this year.

And the lessons he learned from losing by 109,125 votes seven years ago helped Chandler buck a whole bunch of trends, nationally and in Kentucky, this year.

Chandler’s Republican challenger Andy Barr conceded on Friday after a recanvass of the 6th congressional district showed Chandler was ahead of Barr by 648 votes.

Let’s put Chandler’s win, however narrow, into perspective:

  • Chandler and fellow Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth are two of only 26 Democrats who remain in Congress from this region of the country (Kentucky and its seven neighboring states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.)
  • In fact, one third of the 60 Democratic seats that were lost came from Kentucky’s seven neighbors. After the 2008 elections, those states had 44 Democrats and 34 Republicans and now will have 24 Democrats and 54 Republicans.

Now rewind more than seven years to the Democratic primary for governor when Chandler learned some tough political lessons that he credits for preparing him for this election cycle.

Lesson 1: Define himself before his opponent can

Chandler was the first candidate in Kentucky to go on the air with commercials back in early August.

He introduced himself with that commercial as an independent voice – a safe play in the 2010 election cycle, especially for a Democrat.

For Chandler, though, it wasn’t a stretch.

He has long touted his independence from the Democratic Party. For instance while he was attorney general, he pursued an investigation into election violations by then-Gov. Paul Patton’s chief of staff and union leaders.

That was something he tried to do during the 2003 Democratic primary for governor. But his chief rival in the race, Bruce Lunsford, aired a series of sharps ads criticizing Chandler for, among other things, receiving campaign contributions from special interest groups. The sheer amount of ads Lunsford, a millionaire businessman, was able to air on that theme eroded much of Chandler’s message.

“It kept me from being able to present myself as the outsider that I felt like my record would have suggested,” Chandler said in an interview the weekend before the Nov. 2 election.

And he said that ultimately weakened him for the general election against Republican Ernie Fletcher.

“When the primary election started in ’03, we were 12 points ahead of Fletcher,” Chandler said. “When the primary season ended, we were 10 points behind Fletcher.”

Chandler vowed that wouldn’t happen again.

“I guess strategically we felt like it was important to define our opponent and define myself at the start of the campaign, so we went up early with positives and then went up with actually an issue ad,“ he said.

Lesson 2: Define his opponent before his opponent can

That was the other part of that brutal 2003 ad war that stuck with Chandler.

Before Labor Day this year, Chandler began launching an all-out assault on Barr.

His first commercial alleged that that Barr wanted to “privatize Social Security” – a claim that the Herald-Leader ruled to be “mostly false.” While Barr hadn’t specifically called for that, he had voiced support for Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal that transforms Social Security into guaranteed private accounts.

From there, Chandler and Barr traded tough ads. Both threw everything they could at the other, leaving no exaggerated claim un-flung.

The difference was that Chandler had more money to spend, and thus, a louder voice on the air.

That brings us to Chandler’s third lesson from seven years ago.

Lesson 3: There’s never enough money in the campaign coffers

When the general election season began this summer, Chandler was sitting on a $1.7 million warchest.

It helped that Chandler hadn’t faced a stiff re-election bid in the last three cycles and that he didn’t have a primary challenger.

But Chandler has never been fond of raising money. So he kicked it into a new gear.

The most recent numbers showed he spent $2 million and still had $635,000 left heading into the last two weeks of the election, according to the Federal Election Commission report.

Even down to the end, Chandler was tapping every source of money possible, including retiring state lawmakers Harry Moberly and Ed Worley of Richmond, former Democratic Party Chairmen Bill Garmer and Jerry Lundergan, as well as Lundergan’s wife Charlotte, who is on the party’s executive committee. He also got money from the re-election committees of fellow members of Congress Dave Obey of Wisconsin and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland – the Democratic Majority Leader.

And Chandler made no secret that he lobbied the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen to help him out. But he said he didn’t know if the DCCC would until “they bought the time.”

Lesson 4: Never assume the rules will stay the same

One could make the argument that 2003 and 2010 were similar in that Democrats, and Chandler specifically, faced stiff Republican headwinds.

But Chandler said it was more nuanced than that.

The biggest similarity, he said, was that both election years saw big shifts in the rules for campaign fund-raising.

Before the 2003 race, the General Assembly elminated a provision that provided taxpayer money for candidates to run for governor and placed a hard cap of $1.2 million on how much the campaigns could spend.

“We thought we were going to have public financing,” Chandler said. “It was stripped out from under us. Lunsford wouldn’t have run if we didn’t have public financing because the rules wouldn’t have allowed him to.”

This time the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in January in the Citizens United case opened the door for corporations to spend limitless amounts of cash of issue ads during an election.

Speaking to a group of voters in Estill County on Oct. 30, Chandler denounced the move as a severe setback to the U.S. electoral process.

“They just pour the money into a little group anonymously,” Chandler said. “They call themselves some genuine-sounding, nice name. But those groups could be the big oil companies or any corporation.”

At first it looked like coal companies might invest heavily in the 6th District to try to defeat Chandler, who voted for a bill in 2009 that would create a cap-and-trade system as a way to try and cut down on greenhouse gasses.

But the mountain of coal money never materialized.

Still, Chandler said he did all he could to raise enough resources to stand on his own against the Republican tide and whatever groups might go after him.

All he needed was to convince one more person to vote for him to return to Washington than whatever Barr got.

He got it with just 647 to spare.

- Ryan Alessi


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