Picking the bellwethers in the national bellwether 6th District

10/31/2010 06:12 PM

As the election returns first start to slowly trickle in Tuesday evening, pundits will be focused on Kentucky, and specifically Central Kentucky, to try to get a handle on what kind of night it will be.

The 6th Congressional District, which covers a tightly-bunched group of 16 Central Kentucky counties, is on every national observers’ watch list.  And votes for incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler and Republican challenger Andy Barr will be among the first to be counted.

The Cook Report, Rothenburg Report and New York Times have rated the Chandler-Barr contest as a toss-up for the last two weeks. And Nate Silver at the Times’ fivethirtyeight blog set up his Election Night hour-by-hour tracker on Sunday.

Each seat has a “magic number” of how many seats the Republicans are likely to take if they win that particular seat. In the case of Kentucky’s 6th District, Silver has calculated a net gain of 62 if Barr unseats Chandler. The GOP needs to pick up 39 to take control of the chamber.

Although Silver did offer a caveat:

I’d be a little bit more cautious about reading too much into the two Kentucky districts on our chart, the 6th and the 3rd, just because Kentucky is a fairly idiosyncratic state to begin with, and both the polling and the Senate race have been strange there. Still, John Yarmuth’s 3rd district, which encompasses Louisville, reflects a strong potential upside case for the G.O.P. if they were to win it.

U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, a Republican who represents Kentucky’s 4th District, told Pure Politics that he believed if Barr upsets Chandler, it would mean a Republican wave of more than 60 seats. If the race is a nailbiter, it will likely mean a net gain of 50-55 seats, Davis said.

So what should Kentuckians be looking for to get a handle on the direction Barr and Chandler’s race is going?

  • 1. The margin in Fayette County. Chandler’s key threshold is 55%. Barr’s is 50%.

With Fayette County making up 40% of the 6th District’s voters who come out to the polls, it’s an obvious key. Chandler has never received less than 55% of the vote in that county. It’s been all but impossible for a 6th District candidate to lose Fayette County and win the seat.

The best comparison to this race (though not perfect) is 1998 when then-Lexington state Rep. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, defeated Democrat Ernesto Scorsone, who at the time was a state Senator from Lexington.

It was a non-presidential year with a contentious U.S. Senate race on the ballot. Fletcher narrowly won Fayette County with 50.2% of the vote. He went on to win the district 53% to Scorsone’s 46% but Fletcher did so by winning counties Chandler is unlikely to lose, such as Woodford (Chandler’s home county) and Bourbon.

  • 2. Results in Madison County. Chandler’s key threshold 50%, Barr 56%

It’s the second most populous county in the district and it’s been trending more Republican in recent elections. In the last two decades, no one has won the 6th District without winning Madison County.

Chandler’s percentage of 53.7% in the February 2004 special election over Republican Alice Forgy Kerr was the lowest percentage in that time.

Former Republican Congressman Erine Fletcher won the seat in 1998 by carrying Madison County with nearly 56% of the vote and won re-election in a three-way contest with 56.1%.

If Barr can keep that pace in Madison County, it will mean he’s very much in it.

  • 3. Estill County’s results. Chandler’s key threshold 50%, Barr’s 63%

It’s one of the smallest in the district and solidly Republican in registration, but it’s displayed a fair amount of independence.

Unlike a couple of the other counties with majority Republicans — Jessamine and Garrard — Estill County has reliably voted for Chandler in all four of his previous congressional races.

If Chandler wins Estill County, that will be a huge signal that the Republican wave didn’t materialize in the district.

On the flip side, Barr needs to run up the score in order to show his message is taking hold. Fletcher won Estill County in all four of his congressional runs, including the 1996 campaign in which he lost to incumbent Democrat Scotty Baesler. But in his three winning races, his percentage was above 63%.

- Ryan Alessi


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.