In an election in which the coal industry failed to unseat President Obama and other key Democrats, Kentucky Republican Andy Barr was arguably its biggest gain.
In a rematch that became one of the country's most-watched races, Barr unseated five-term Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler, a well-known Kentucky politician who previously also served as state auditor and attorney general.
The newly elected 39-year-old lawyer was defiant when speaking to a crowd of supporters on election night: "We faced an entrenched incumbent with a celebrated name in Kentucky in a district with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. But when they told us we couldn't win, we said for the sake of our country, we cannot afford to lose."
Barr will represent Kentucky's 6th District -- which includes Lexington and Frankfort, the capital -- when he takes office in January. Meanwhile, he is already starting to get used to the often-hectic ways of Capitol Hill, running yesterday with an aide from a new lawmaker orientation seminar to a meeting and then to a fried chicken lunch.
The Republican's priorities include repealing or at least rolling back the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, and he is particularly concerned about the law's effect on community banks. Barr is also gunning for an unlikely repeal of "Obamacare" and blocking cap and trade, or anything that resembles it.
"I campaigned on maximizing domestic energy production, not just for reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy but also for economic recovery," Barr said in an interview. "We have a great opportunity in this country to promote more American energy production."
He added, "Kentucky is uniquely positioned to really be a leader in a new energy revolution with, of course, our abundance of coal resources in eastern and western Kentucky. We have natural gas in Kentucky; we have oil sands in Kentucky."
To that end, Barr, like many Republicans, wants to block U.S. EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, wants to give states more power over mining permits and is backing legislation requiring Congress to approve any major new regulation.
"The coal industry needs advocates. The coal industry needs defenders in the Congress," said Barr. "We would like to see this administration change course and be more friendly to the coal industry."
Environmental advocates and other critics questioned the GOP's focus on coal during the elections and say the Obama administration has no reason to change course, especially with Democrats retaining control of the Senate. They have called politicians foolish for focusing on a "dying industry."
But Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the pro-coal message made a difference in the nation's coal areas, including rural places in Kentucky and West Virginia. In his opinion, Barr's election is exhibit A.
"The hope is that [President Obama] sees the result in often Democrat states like Kentucky," Bissett said in an interview. "Coal played not only a significant role in the election, but it was also a central theme of the election."
Al Cross -- a well-known analyst and columnist and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky -- faulted the industry for blaming coal-field job losses and other problems on the Obama administration rather than factors like competition and cheap natural gas.
Cross said in an interview, "The fascinating thing about this election is that Barr was able to make coal an issue in a district with no coal mines." About Barr, he said, "Given what happened in this election, it would be shocking to have him be anything but loyal to the coal industry."
The mining industry and its employees were among Barr's top election donors, to the tune of more than $86,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Federal Election Commission records show contributions from Arch Coal Inc. and Alliance Resource Partners LP, among others.
In an effort to fight claims that he was anti-coal, Chandler went after pro-Barr ads featuring Alliance-affiliated Kentucky coal executive Heath Lovell. But Democratic attacks that Lovell was just an executive posing as a miner appeared to have backfired.
"As you can imagine, this is a very disappointing evening for us," Chandler told supporters after conceding defeat. "I'm afraid the president was just a little too heavy for us in some of the rural counties."
And Barr has a message for Obama and his administration, which is deeply unpopular in parts of Appalachia. "If they don't change the way they see [coal issues]," he said, "then it's my job as the representative for Kentucky to provide the oversight needed and to advocate for them."
Meant for Washington
Despite his sometimes fiery rhetoric, those close to Representative-elect Barr say he's less of a populist and more of a policy wonk who was destined to become a lawmaker.
"He's very bright," said family friend Shelby Kinkead of the Lexington law firm Kinkead & Stilz PLLC, where Barr was an attorney. "He's earnest, and I think he will be thoroughly familiar with the issues."
The son of an attorney and Episcopal deacon, Barr interned for Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell and worked for former Missouri Republican Rep. Jim Talent. He was also an aide to former Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R).
"He was an excellent student, [and] he was a college professor," said Kinkead in an interview. "He has a love of constitution law and the legislative process, and so I think he'll really throw himself into it," Kinkead added. "I don't think he ever had a desire to be a career attorney. He really wanted to be a legislator."
Republican Thomas Massie, who won a special election to replace outgoing Rep. Geoff Davis to represent Kentucky's northeastern 4th District, is also known for his smarts. He has engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been a successful tech entrepreneur.
But while both Barr and Massie received libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's support, Massie is more associated with the tea party label. "I think Mr. Barr is more a traditional Republican," said Bissett.
The pro-coal lobbyist added, "These are extremely intelligent, thoughtful people who I think really have their pulse on their districts."
Bissett, however, fears that Barr may have a tougher time getting re-elected compared to Massie. Barr won with just over 50 percent of the vote compared with Massie's 62 percent.
Cross noted that strong Democrats without the baggage of a voting record may emerge to run against Barr in 2014. "Kentucky Republicans are still going to be running against Barack Obama, even though he's not going to be a candidate," Cross said.
Former Lexington Mayor Teresa Isaac (D) told the Lexington Herald-Leader that she was indeed looking at challenging Barr. She said her potential campaign was "very preliminary" but called the 6th District "winnable for a Democrat."
Meanwhile, Chandler has not said much about his future. "I don't know whether it's over or not," he said about his political career. "We'll see. ... I was told a long time ago that when you dig a dry hole, you don't sit there and fill it with tears; you move the digger."
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