WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler said last week he partially blames the Obama administration and U.S. House leadership for Democrats' election losses and his extremely narrow re-election.
"If not there, where else does the responsibility lie?" said Chandler, D-Ky., who had endorsed Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. "You're talking about the loss of 60 or something seats held by capable public servants. There had to be something going on at a level above them. If that isn't the lesson, I don't know what is."
In a wide-ranging interview last week, Chandler said Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should have focused on the economy before attempting to reform health care.
"I think it was a serious strategic error on the part of the administration to take on health care when the public was agitated about the economy," he said.
"People will tell you the economy was their first concern. And I actually told people with the administration this at the time that they were making a mistake and that they should focus on the economy."
Chandler said Pelosi did not deserve to be re-elected as leader of the House Democrats.
"It baffles me that you can suffer the largest defeat since 1938 and still maintain your leadership of the caucus," Chandler said.
Chandler was one of 43 House Democrats who voted for Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina to be House minority leader. Pelosi won easily with 150 votes.
"The candidate who was running against her is a much better fit for my district," Chandler said of Shuler.
"He's more of a moderate. I can tell you, Nancy Pelosi, the way she has been portrayed by Republican attack ads against conservative Democrats, is as a San Francisco liberal. That doesn't go over well in my district."
Shuler, like Chandler, is a Blue Dog Democrat, a self-described group of moderates whose ranks will be significantly diminished in the next session of Congress.
In seeking to unseat Pelosi, Shuler targeted her as a symbol of liberal Washington's failings.
Chandler's hard-fought victory over Republican newcomer Andy Barr will place him in the House minority, a suddenly bleak congressional terrain for Democrats.
More than 60 House Democrats, many of them friends of Chandler and members of the Blue Dog Coalition, were felled Nov. 2 by well-funded GOP challengers.
The loss of a core group of centrist Democrats and, to a lesser extent, Republicans, broadens an ideological divide in Congress. That could further stymie compromise and will certainly make Chandler's job a lot tougher in the upcoming two years, he said.
"We've gone from a situation of it being easier to get bills introduced and heard on the floor. Now it's going to be difficult for people in the minority to get anything done," Chandler said.
Still, just getting back to Congress was an accomplishment for Chandler.
"As the cycle developed it became apparent Democrats were more vulnerable based on their district and their state. The Midwest and the South was where Republicans made the bulk of their gains, and the Kentucky 6th (Congressional District) is smack in the middle of those," said Nathan Gonzales, a political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter in Washington.
Considering the toxic political climate, Chandler fought back both hard and well, Gonzales said.
Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said just after the election that Republicans had targeted the Blue Dogs.
"When we set out to take back the majority this cycle, we looked at some of the obvious places, and it was where (John) McCain performed well in 2008, and those places are represented by Blue Dogs."
Even though Chandler had breezed to re-election in 2008, McCain carried the 6th Congressional District, which encircles Lexington, winning every county over Obama except Fayette.
In targeting Chandler's seat, Barr and GOP groups such as the National Republican Campaign Committee aired a series of commercials criticizing Chandler's votes for the economic stimulus package and the cap-and-trade plan, which would have curbed greenhouse gas emissions but which critics say could have resulted in job losses in the state's coal industry.
Often, the advertisements prominently showed Pelosi, used such language as "Pelosi's lap dog," and pointed out the number of times Chandler's votes aligned with Pelosi's.
Although Chandler voted against the controversial health-care overhaul, the long debate over the legislation fueled passions nationwide and in his district.
In some districts, congressional Democrats were shouted down at town-hall meetings.
It was during this period Chandler was criticized, especially on talk radio, for not having town-hall meetings.
"Around about the time the town halls started was about the time he stopped coming on my show," said WVLK-AM 590's Jack Pattie, who is known for not having a political slant. "The people at his office stopped returning my calls."
Still, Pattie has some sympathy for Chandler, who used to appear on his show regularly.
"In a way I sort of feel sorry for him," Pattie said. "People came down on him for cap-and-trade, and then he voted against health care, and people still came down on him. And I was saying to callers, 'Wait a minute, he did exactly what you guys wanted him to do.' And they said: 'He did, but he didn't do it for the right reasons.' It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation."
Darren Farmer, judge-executive in Powell County, one of six counties Chandler carried in the 16-county district, said Chandler's vote in favor of the cap-and-trade bill may have been the biggest hurdle for him to overcome.
"The one thing the congressman had going against him was the cap-and-trade issue, and it was a big issue. It was the primary problem people had with him," Farmer said.
Still, Chandler prevailed in Powell County, as he did in Fayette, Franklin, Woodford, Bourbon and Montgomery counties.
"He's just very well known around here. People know him more as a neighbor rather than a congressman," Farmer said.
Chandler recognizes he survived against determined opposition.
"There was a lot of time, money and attention spent on driving the other message," Chandler said. "It's a lot easier to scare people. Lies carry faster than the truth."
Now, as Chandler prepares to head into the lame-duck session of Congress, he thinks about the success he's had at advocating for improved mine safety regulations and funding for cleanup efforts at the Blue Grass Army Depot — efforts that were under a Democratic-controlled House. He's looking ahead to a year in which the Republican-led House is expected to vote on such issues as whether to deny citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants.
"My major takeaway is that we lost 60-something odd seats because we didn't address people's concerns about the economy," Chandler said.
"And they'll be no less happy with the Republicans if they don't address concerns with the economy. And they'll face similar issues in 2012 if they bring up divisive social issues."