Democratic U.S. Ben Chandler and Republican challenger Andy Barr make their first face-to-face meeting on a TV show Monday after months of name-calling in what ranks as one of Kentucky's most mean-spirited congressional races ever.
Locked in a tight race to represent Kentucky's thoroughbred region in Washington, Chandler and Barr have hurled insults in TV ads and stump speeches since late summer. And sparks are expected to fly in the studio at the public television station KET during the faceoff that begins at 8 p.m. EDT.
"It's the nastiest I've ever seen a congressional race in Kentucky," said former Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, a grizzled political veteran.
Lundergan warned things could get uglier in the final days of a race that he predicted could end up costing $10 million with combined spending by the candidates and outside interest groups.
Chandler, a former attorney general who has served in Congress since 2004, and Barr, a Lexington attorney, are in a rematch for the 6th District seat. Barr lost by less than 700 votes two years ago in a race that was no less heated.
Like congressional races across the country, the biggest Kentucky issues deal with how to preserve Medicare and Social Security, whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and how to improve the economy and create jobs. But not all the issues are so weighty.
In one instance, Democrats have accused Barr of trying to hide a criminal record, a reference to Barr's college days when as a 19-year-old he was charged with possessing a fake driver's license. He pleaded guilty to that misdemeanor 20 years ago and was ordered to do community service.
"I'm disappointed but not surprised that the campaign has been as negative as it has been," Barr said. "That's why people are so disillusioned with career politicians. Instead of talking about the issues that really matter, like getting the American people back to work, we see this kind of petty, shameful attack."
Chandler insists he was forced to go negative by his opponent, who has tried to paint him as a surrogate for President Barack Obama, an unpopular figure in Kentucky politics.
"Nobody wants to be involved in a nasty race," Chandler said. "I didn't ask for it. Generally, when people are trying to bring down someone else, they resort to this. The most egregious mailers I've ever seen. Nasty radio ads. Nasty television ads. They have nasty Internet ads. It's all nasty. It's all false, and you don't have any choice as the other candidate but to combat it. It's just insane what's going on."
The Chandler-Barr 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 general 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.
Barr has focused his campaign on job losses in the coalfields, where some 2,000 have been laid off. He blames those layoffs on Obama and Chandler, saying the Democratic administration's environmental policies have made it nearly impossible for new mines to open.
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.
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 Barr.
Chandler insists that he's no enemy of coal. He opposed Obama earlier this year with a call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back off policies that have made it difficult for Kentucky companies to open or expand coal mines. Chandler also has gotten the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America.
Chandler has been the leading fundraiser with $2 million in contributions and more than $830,000 on hand as of Sept. 30. Barr has raised $1.8 million and had nearly $790,000 on hand.
Nearly all that money has gone for airing TV ads, most of them attacks.
Chandler appears to have been given an edge by the state Legislature, which redrew the boundaries of legislative districts earlier this year. The once-a-decade action increased the number of registered Democrats in the 6th District by more than 8,200 and decreased Republicans by nearly 3,900.
Nearly 293,000 Democrats are eligible to vote in the district on Nov. 6, compared with almost 167,000 Republicans, which should play in Chandler's favor. Some have questioned whether that's a sufficient advantage to overcome the drag of Obama. In Kentucky's May presidential primary, 42 percent of Democratic voters marked their ballots "uncommitted" rather than voting for Obama.
"It's pretty clear that the presidential race is a challenge here," Chandler said. "The presidential race always has some effect on federal races. It's a challenge to get people to understand that you're different, particularly when the other side is focused on trying to make me into the president."
Barr said the Nov. 6 election gives Kentucky voters an opportunity to let Congress know they're unhappy.
"I think anyone, regardless of party, who is committed to reforming Washington and is not an incumbent is doing well because the American people are so dissatisfied with career politicians who are in Washington," he said. "So our message to all voters, Republicans and Democrats alike, is if you're dissatisfied with Washington, don't send the same politicians back who are part of the problem."