With Kentucky slowly rebounding from recession, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and Republican challenger Andy Barr sparred Monday over government's role in job creation. Chandler credited government intervention with rescuing the U.S. auto industry with a financial bailout in 2009, saving thousands of jobs in a state that's home to Toyota, Ford and General Motors manufacturing plants.
Barr said the bailout was unnecessary, saying bankruptcy would have been the better alternative and that government should loosen its grip on private industry.
The two shared a stage Monday night for the first time this year. During their appearance on a public television show in Lexington, they also wrangled over job losses in the coal industry and the issue of abortion. The two have been engaged in a mean-spirited congressional race to represent Kentucky's thoroughbred region in Congress, hurling insults at one another since late summer.
"The assertion that government has no role to play in the creation of jobs would come as quite a shock to those of us who remember Toyota," Chandler said. "The fact that Toyota came to this state was very much connected to government intervention, government help, federal and state, and we've got an enormous number of jobs right here in Kentucky because of government incentives."
Chandler has steadfastly defended his vote for the auto industry bailout. And Barr has continued his criticism of that vote, making it a central campaign issue.
"It was not required to send billions of dollars in taxpayer monies to these auto companies," Barr said. "And remember, this set a bad precedent because it involved the government upsetting the rule of law, upsetting the traditional bankruptcy laws."
Kentucky is one of the nation's leading auto producers with manufacturing plants in Bowling Green, Georgetown and Louisville, plus supply plants in small towns across the state. The auto plants and their suppliers employ nearly 70,000 Kentuckians.
Chandler and Barr are in a rematch for the 6th District seat. Barr lost by less than 700 votes in the first go-around two years ago.
Their race is the most competitive congressional matchup in Kentucky. U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers, Ed Whitfield, Brett Guthrie and John Yarmuth face no serious threats in the Nov. 6 election. And in Kentucky's 4th District, where U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis resigned, tea party Republican Thomas Massie is expected to dominate in his race against Democrat Bill Adkins, a northern Kentucky attorney.
On abortion, Chandler said it should be the right of women to make a decision on terminating pregnancies. Barr said he opposes abortion, but would not say if he believes there should be exceptions in cases of rape, incest or health of the woman.
Coal issues have played big in the matchup, even though most of the state's mines are miles away in the more mountainous Appalachian region. Lexington, the largest city in the district, is home to several coal companies and has a large population of former miners who left the coalfields in search of work. Both Chandler and Barr claim to be champions of the industry.
Even so, coal executives and their political action committees are backing Barr. Financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show they've given at least $85,000 to support Barr's general election bid.
Chandler, a former attorney general who has served in Congress since 2004, insists that he's no enemy of coal. He called earlier this year for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ease up on regulations that have made it difficult to open or expand coal mines in Kentucky.
The United Mine Workers of America union endorsed Chandler for re-election.
Chandler called Barr "a tea party-backed extremist" on the TV show while defending himself as an independent Democrat who is willing to work with both parties to reach compromises to help the country.
"We don't need more ideologues," Chandler said. "We don't need more people on the far right or far left."
Barr tried to appeal to voters who are tired of gridlock in Washington.
"If you want to send a message to Washington, the best way you can do that, to hold Washington and Congress accountable, is to replace your congressman," Barr said.