Six weeks after the Supreme Court sent shock waves through the political world by lifting long-held bans on corporate and union involvement in federal elections, one district is looking ripe for the new rules to be put into play.
The case of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission has opened the door for outside groups to spend unlimited sums on television advertising and other campaign expenditures in federal races, and some Kentucky insiders believe that Rep. Ben Chandler’s (D) 6th district will be the test case.
“If I were a corporation or if I had an interest in communicating to voters about an easily understood vote, something that’s well-known, in a geographic area that certainly understands the real-world economic implications, I can’t think of a better place than Lexington and the 6th Congressional district,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime Kentucky GOP operative, who serves as a senior strategist at Peritus Public Relations.
Here’s one way the scenario might play out.
With its vast underground coal reserves, eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian Coal Basin is home to most of the about 500 coal mines that dot the state. The mining industry employs about 18,000 Kentuckians and is a well-funded political player in the state.
And while there are no active mines in the 6th district — eastern Kentucky’s major coal reserves reside farther east in Republican Rep. Hal Rogers’ district — the area, which includes Lexington, still contains a sizable number of companies and families that rely on the coal industry. Lexington is even home to the offices of the Kentucky Coal Association.
And the coal industry was particularly irked by Chandler’s vote last year to support the House cap-and-trade bill. It’s a bill that the coal companies believe to be a direct attack on their bottom line. In some parts of the state the legislation is referred to as the major front in President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.”
The 6th is a classic swing district that voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 12 points in the 2008 presidential race.
It’s also relatively cheap to run television ads, and a few million dollars dropped in Lexington by coal companies could have a very big effect.
The 6th district is almost entirely contained within the Lexington media market. In terms of dollars per point, Lexington costs about half as much as the Louisville market.
And if they can knock off Chandler, coal and other energy companies opposed to cap-and-trade legislation would have a scalp to hold up as a warning for other Members who vote against energy interests.
“This district is not unique,” Jennings said. “There were a few other districts around the country where you had Democrats in relatively conservative districts voting for cap-and-trade.”
Rep. Zack Space in Ohio’s 18th district, Rep. Harry Teague in New Mexico’s 2nd district and Rep. Tom Perriello in Virginia’s 5th district are three other Democrats in a similar situation.
However, “with [the 6th district] being so close to Kentucky coal fields, and this district being home to a lot of people who are affected by the coal industry, I thought [cap-and-trade] was politically a dangerous vote [for Chandler], and certainly it’s even more dangerous in light of the Supreme Court ruling,” Jennings said.
Kentucky coal industry insiders say no decision has been made on how or even whether they will get involved in Chandler’s race.
“We have not as an association discussed that issue yet,” said David Moss, vice president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “Our association has not collectively analyzed whether we would have a role in the campaign.”
Chandler’s office did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story, but even some Democratic operatives acknowledge that a storm is brewing when it comes to the coal industry and Chandler.
“He better find a way to get right with coal … because they are going to do something,” one Kentucky Democratic insider said. “He’s looking at six figures minimum. The question of whether it’s $300,000 or $1 million” depends on whether Chandler can blunt some of the fury that his cap-and-trade vote incited between now and Election Day.
But third-party interests alone likely won’t be enough to defeat Chandler, a four-term Member who is the grandson of former Kentucky Sen. and Gov. A.B. Chandler (D). Ben Chandler had nearly $1.6 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 31.
“He has cast some votes that are completely out of line with that district. That said, he is in a fairly strong position in that district and he works it pretty hard by going home and being known, and of course, his name is very, very well-known both from his own statewide races and his family’s legacy there,” one Bluegrass State GOP operative said.
The operative said the other ingredients for a Chandler defeat are a national environment that continues to favor Republicans this fall and a strong GOP challenger.
Right now the top two Republicans in the primary are attorney Andy Barr and retired coal company executive Mike Templeman.
Barr, 36, was deputy general counsel to then-Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and now works for the Lexington firm Kinkead & Stilz. He joined the race last fall and raised just less than $120,000 during 2009’s fourth quarter, ending the year with $290,000 in cash on hand. Among his receipts was a $500 contribution on Dec. 31 from CoalPac, a political action committee managed by the National Mining Association.
Templeman, 62, stepped down last fall from his post as CEO of Energy Coal Resources. He is a former state trooper who has worked in the coal and natural gas industry as well as in the commercial development sector. He jumped into the race on the last day of filing in January.
Templeman said this week that he’s running as a businessman and “nontraditional candidate,” whereas Barr is “a professional politician. He spent his whole lifetime trying to be in office.”
One Kentucky Republican strategist who isn’t working for either campaign said Barr has done a good job of getting out early and rounding up much of the establishment support in Kentucky Republican circles. But the strategist also said Templeman may have some room to run as the outsider.
“Andy can recite the talking points that the [National Republican Congressional Committee] sent out, but Mike can actually talk with a business owner about how a piece of legislation is going to affect his operations,” the strategist said.
One thing that may hurt Templeman in the primary is that among the many political contributions that he’s given over the years, a few went to Democrats, including a $1,000 donation last summer to the Senate campaign of state Attorney General Jack Conway.
Barr has taken notice of the issue.
“I am a principled conservative and lifelong Republican, and I’ve consistently supported Republican candidates and causes,” Barr said.
Templeman explained his Democratic donation as simply part of being a good businessman. “I have given to Democrats, and if I was in business today, I would still continue to give to some Democrats. Unfortunately that’s part of doing business in this country,” he said.