Denouncing big money influences on politics, several underfunded Democratic U.S. Senate candidates piled on Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Monday night for tapping his personal wealth to help finance his run for the seat held by Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
Six Democratic candidates met for an hour-long discussion aired statewide on Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington, just days ahead of the state’s May 17 primary. The candidates fielded questions on issues ranging from expanding jobs to fighting terrorism.
Paul, focusing on his Senate re-election campaign after ending his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, faces token primary opposition.
One Democrat, Ron Leach, called the reliance on big campaign money a “corrosive, cancerous problem.” Another candidate, Sellus Wilder, said elections are “turning into auctions.”
“All but one of us are not very wealthy up here, and it’s really hard to run a full-time, credible campaign and still pay the bills,” said Wilder, a former Frankfort City Commission member. “And so right now we have a process that really only favors millionaires and billionaires.”
Gray, who helped build his family’s construction company into a global enterprise, responded that “if I’m the front-runner, that’s for a reason. I’ve got experience and I’ve got a record.”
Gray joined in denouncing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a limit on the amount donors may give to candidates, party committees and political action committees combined. “Too much money in politics is not healthy, it’s not good for democracy,” he said.
Recent campaign finance reports showed both Paul and Gray had $1.5 million on hand at the end of March. Gray’s campaign account was bolstered by his $1 million loan to his campaign
Gray has run a series of TV ads to raise his profile ahead of the primary.
Democratic candidate Tom Recktenwald said he’s refusing to accept campaign donations. He mentioned the list of Democrats who lost U.S. Senate races in Kentucky during the past two decades, and said Democrats need to find a new approach to stop the GOP winning streak.
“If we continue to do what we’ve always done, and we’ll surely add Jim Gray to that list come this November,” said Recktenwald, a retired technology teacher from Louisville.
Leach, a former Army Green Beret from Brandenburg, said Democrats have mistakenly portrayed themselves as “Republican-lite” candidates.
Calling himself an “unabashed progressive,” Wilder said Democrats leave “entire constituencies unrepresented” by competing with the GOP on who can be the most conservative.
Another Democratic candidate, Jeff Kender, said national Democrats have strayed from the party’s traditional values.
“They’re always talking about climate change and putting barriers on our Second Amendment rights,” he said.
Paul also drew criticism for his first-term Senate record. Wilder said the Republican lawmaker has been largely ineffective due to “pursuing his own rather rigid ideologies.” But Wilder also said he was “happy to agree” with Paul on criminal justice and civil liberties issues.
On another topic, Gray said abortions should be “rare and legal and safe,” and said he supports funding for Planned Parenthood for contraception services.
Asked about President Barack Obama’s decision to send an additional 250 special operations forces to Syria in an effort to stem the influence of ISIS, Gray called it an “intervention that is appropriate. And whether or not the president then makes a decision to supplement that, that’s the commander in chief’s responsibility.”
Leach said the president’s action is “probably the appropriate decision at this time.”
Democrat Rory Houlihan also participated in the event.