Chandler's Love of Competition Will Come in Handy

Sometimes clichés are too apt to be avoided. For the second-newest member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler (search), the phrase "out of the frying pan and into the fire" truly fits.

But the veteran of two major elections in one year — who joined Congress in February right as a host of issues heated up — seems to like it that way.

"I’m having a great time," Chandler told of his nearly four-month tenure representing Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. "I’m absolutely loving it."

Chandler doesn't mind that when he was elected in a special election Feb. 17, the war in Iraq was just beginning to take its bloodiest turn since its start. At home, intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war was being questioned. Lawmakers were debating whether the economy was going to face a "jobless recovery" and the parties were disputing the best way to reform Medicare.

The confluence of issues made for all sorts of partisan battles on Capitol Hill, which have carried on vigorously into the 2004 campaign season.

"It’s an exciting time to be in the United States Congress, it really is," said Chandler, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher (search) for governor in November and then beat Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (search) 55 percent to 43 percent for the special election to fill Fletcher’s seat.

The 6th District is Republican-leaning — Fletcher won with 72 percent in 2002 — so Chandler’s win was quite a coup. He is the first Democrat across the country to win a Republican-held seat in a special election since 1991.

Meanwhile, he seems unfazed as he faces the prospect of defending his win less than a year after his victory.

"I’m very used to elections, I can tell you that," said the 44-year-old father of three, who added that his "family is doing fine, they’re real sports about it."

But Chandler isn't going to have an easy go of it. If the status quo holds and a Republican picks up Rep. Ken Lucas' 4th District seat after Lucas retires in November, Chandler could be the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation.

Republican state Sen. Tom Buford (search), who won a three-way May 18 primary to run against Chandler in November, said the congressman will have a much more difficult time drawing a majority of voters this time. President Bush will be at the top of the ticket in November in a district he won in 2000 over former Vice President Al Gore 55 to 42 percent.

"I would say if this were not a presidential election, this would not be a good time to challenge any incumbent," said Buford. "But this spells difficulty for him."

Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign, said the 6th District has more Democratic registered voters than Republicans, but still has a history of voting for the GOP candidate. It's a "model of a swing district" that Buford has a good chance of taking back, Harmon said.

But the state's Democratic Party chief disagrees, and points to the major backing behind Kerr before the special election and massive advertising campaign that didn't seem to help.

Kerr had the full backing of popular Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell (search) and "ran advertisement after advertisement on TV in which she absolutely tied herself to President Bush and President Bush’s policies. In spite of all that, Ben Chandler won," said party chairman Bill Garmer.

Garmer said Chandler won against Kerr because of his statewide name recognition and "more moderate approach," and believes that it will work for him again.

"He’s very independent and he looks at things in terms of whether they are right or wrong," Garmer said. "He doesn’t look like so many politicians do. I think that’s his greatest attribute."

Added Lucas: "His common-sense approach will not only benefit his constituents. But I believe he will be an effective and outspoken advocate for the entire state of Kentucky."

Elected Kentucky’s youngest attorney general in 1995, Chandler served two four-year terms and forged a reputation as a fair advocate of senior citizens, and fighter of public corruption, and even pursued an investigation into the pro-Democratic unions working for former Gov. Paul Patton’s last election.

But Buford said he thinks that in this old Bluegrass district, which includes the central city of Lexington (search) and several of its smaller suburbs, voters tend to be more conservative on the social issues, and that’s where Chandler might run into problems.

As far as the war in Iraq (search) goes, Chandler said had he been in office at the time the vote to authorize war came, "I would have voted for it given the facts as I knew them ... or as they were given to Congress at the time."

Since then, however, the inability to uncover weapons of mass destruction (search) and the post-war reconstruction in Iraq have changed his mind about the decision to go to war.

"I think [the administration] appears to be going in the wrong direction and I don’t see a lot of upside right now," he said. "Frankly, it's not easy to find a way out."

Libertarian candidate Mark Gailley, who also lost in the special election and is trying again in November, said he was happy to see a "regime change" when Chandler took over the 6th District seat. But, he added, Chandler’s views on the war, which seem to change with the audience he is addressing, aren’t strong enough.

"Chandler has shown himself as supporting the war in general, and he only changed these statements when he came to our targeted peace groups," said Gailley, who opposes the war.

Buford supports the war and his son has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Chandler said his stand on Iraq is clear, and he believes it is shared by millions of Americans who might be confused and betrayed by the turn of events.

"I sense they are getting nervous," he said. "I sense there is less enthusiasm for this war with every passing day, throughout the country."