Although Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler (above) beat Republican attorney Andy Barr by fewer than 700 votes in 2010, Kentuckys redistricting process looks as if it will benefit incumbents.
While the race between Rep. Ben Chandler and Lexington attorney Andy Barr ended up being one of the most expensive and closest of the 2010 cycle, Kentucky oddsmakers aren’t betting their 2012 rematch will be as competitive.
Chandler, a Democrat, won by only 647 votes last year, and he’ll be on the ballot next year with President Barack Obama in a state and a district that will favor the GOP nominee.
Still, it’s the Republican who appears to be at a disadvantage a little more than a year before the election.
Kentucky’s redistricting process is unfinished, but Republican strategists familiar with the state told Roll Call that the odds were for the decennial Congressional map redraw to favor Chandler and other incumbents. A slightly more Democratic 6th district could have a big effect for Chandler, a Blue Dog.
One Republican operative with significant Kentucky ties said there were “lots of moving parts” to the redistricting process in Frankfort, but the “map that most agree is more likely to happen, changes it for the worse” for Barr.
According to census data, the 6th district has to lose about 36,000 people in the redraw to comply with federal equal population requirements. That could be accomplished by shedding GOP- leaning counties to one of the surrounding Republican-held districts.
Republicans currently control the state Senate, while Democrats run the state House. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear is all but certain to win re-election next month. During the 2000 redistricting in the Bluegrass State, a similarly split Legislature drew, and a Democratic governor signed, a Congressional map that protected incumbents.
In an interview, Barr admitted that in a close election, the new map could have an effect, but he said it probably wouldn’t be dramatic.
“The district has to lose some population and some territory, but it can’t lose so much that it’s going to be changed radically,” he said.
Turnout also appears to be a factor that could help Chandler win his fifth full term in the House.
“Andy came within 600 votes, and our side was motivated and their side wasn’t,” said a Kentucky Republican strategist, who worried about increased Democratic voter turnout in 2012.
Last year’s race saw significant spending by outside groups, and that trend will likely continue this cycle. During the summer, conservative advocacy group Crossroads GPS released a TV ad slamming Chandler for his votes on the stimulus bill, health care and the debt ceiling. Coal issues will probably also play a role in the rematch.
In Democratic strongholds such as Franklin County — home of the state’s capital, Frankfort — thousands of Democratic-inclined voters appear not to have shown up in 2010. There were about 4,700 fewer people in Franklin County who voted in the 6th district race in 2010 than in 2008. Most of them appear to have been voters who went with Chandler in 2008. The Congressman received 11,700 votes in the county last cycle, while he picked up 17,700 in 2008.
But Barr slapped down the idea that higher Democratic turnout might hurt him.
“It’s just simply not true I’m at a greater disadvantage in 2012,” Barr said. “Barack Obama lost Franklin County in 2008. Barack Obama lost Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district by 12 percentage points at the height of his popularity. The fact that Ben Chandler is going to have to run with the president in 2012 is a huge disadvantage for him.”
Barr is, of course, correct that the president will be a political burden for the incumbent. But if the bent of the GOP-leaning district grows more Democratic and Democrats who sat out 2010 come to the polls next November, Barr has a steep hill to climb.
“Of course challengers are underdogs,” Barr told Roll Call. “But the reality is this is a rematch of the third-closest Congressional race in America.
“We’ve demonstrated that there is considerable dissatisfaction with this incumbent in this Congressional district, and no amount of incumbent-protection redistricting is going to alter that fact,” he said.
Roll Call currently rates the race Leans Democratic.