Politics & Government

Health care, climate change votes could dog Blue Dog

Kentucky Congressman Ben Chandler on the steps of the Capitol, January 2009.
Kentucky Congressman Ben Chandler on the steps of the Capitol, January 2009. David Stephenson/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT

WASHINGTON — For \Rep. Ben Chandler, controversial votes against a health care overhaul backed by the House Democratic leadership and for cap-and-trade energy policies that could lead to penalties for his state's leading industry are like floodlights signaling to critics that the once seemingly unbeatable Kentucky Democrat may have an exposed flank.

"I knew going into this thing that I would be criticized no matter what I did. That's one of the problems when you take a moderate viewpoint in today's climate," said Chandler, a fourth-term lawmaker from Versailles, who tends to eschew the political spotlight. "You can't appease both liberals and conservatives. And I don't vote the way folks want me to vote all of the time."

Indeed, scarcely had votes been cast Saturday night than the conservative Americans for Limited Government sent an e-mail to its members and media outlets condemning Chandler for supporting the measure that would create a government-run health insurance plan. The organization, which sharply criticized Chandler earlier this summer for failing to hold town hall meetings, was forced to issue a hasty retraction and begrudging congratulations when it realized Chandler was one of 39 Democrats who voted against the measure.

The misstep spoke volumes about the difficulty some have had in pinning down Chandler's methodology when voting on major pieces of legislation.

"Look at Ben Chandler and you see someone who voted for the Democratic energy bill, voted against health care, and he's one of the four Democrats with that voting pattern who gained a well-funded challenger between June and November," said David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political analysis group in Washington. "It's a reflection that these members no longer have an aura of invincibility as the energy level on the Republican side has increased."

The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting Chandler in anticipation of next year's race. After roughly three weeks of fundraising, Republican Andy Barr, who recently announced his candidacy, outraised Chandler $186,000 to $160,000 during the third quarter, though Chandler has more cash on hand.

Chandler's troubles may have begun just over a year ago, during the Democratic presidential primary contest, said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

Chandler has "had a rough time over the last 12 to18 months," Gross said. "Some of it started when he came out very early to support (Barack) Obama even though many of the state and district (Democrats) were supportive of (Hillary) Clinton."

Then there was the criticism from some constituents, especially those with ties to coal, over Chandler's vote for a hotly contested measure that would cap carbon emissions and fine companies that go over set limits.

Liberal-leaning supporters may have rejoiced over the cap-and-trade vote, but the celebration was short-lived.

Chandler's "no" vote on the health care legislation stunned some Democrats who expected the lawmaker — who early in his tenure was given a plum position on the powerful Appropriations Committee and is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party — to back party leadership. On Saturday, when President Obama made the rounds on Capitol Hill to drum up support for the health care vote and asked Chandler "can you be with me on this?" the Kentucky lawmaker responded, "Mister President, I have some concerns."

Those concerns included a Congressional Budget Office report that the bill does not significantly reduce the growing cost of health care. Chandler said he canvassed his district, a region that includes both Democratic enclaves like Lexington and more rural and Republican-leaning towns and swaths of farmland, and learned his many small business owners, physicians and the University of Kentucky, among others, were against the measure.

A number of the Democratic members of Congress in conservative districts are running into the same concerns and have begun to question whether they can vote for health care legislation with a public option and survive re-election, Gross said.

There was more than politics at play, Chandler said.

"If you're going to cause small businesses to take a hit, which they will, if you're going to cause rural hospitals to take a hit, then you at least want to get something for it in reduction in health care costs," Chandler said. "This is an entitlement program to cover more people without sufficient reform."

Chandler will play a political price for his climate change and health care votes, political experts said. While the national party will still support him financially, he may face dampened enthusiasm among the local base, which traditionally mans phone banks, makes small donations and canvasses for votes.

"Ben Chandler has a lot of advantages, not the least of which is an admired family name in Kentucky politics," said Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. "It's that reputation as a Kentucky Democrat that has made him so tough to beat. ... But this year is a completely different year. You have a democratic president whose favorability is well below the national average in his district, and that can help drive the race."

In the end, Chandler will have to ask himself if his current voting record is worth the tradeoff, Gross said.

"One of the questions he has to ask himself is whether the support he may have gotten for the health care bill will mean (conservatives) forgive him for the carbon tax bill," Gross said. "He knows he's facing a tough re-election, and he's going to be much more attuned to what's going on in the district."

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