LOUISVILLE (AP) — With Democrats’ dominance in state politics long vanished, the party is looking to rebound from two straight lopsided defeats, but they’re confronted with another daunting task: toppling incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Jim Gray, the soft-spoken mayor of Lexington, approaches the state’s May 17 primary with advantages over lesser-known Democrats vying for the Senate nomination. Gray draws upon a political base in Kentucky’s second-largest city and a campaign bolstered by his personal wealth.
Gray, who helped build his family’s construction company into a global enterprise with yearly sales topping $1 billion, said he’s undaunted by a race against Paul, a first-term senator, in a state trending more conservative.
“I like challenges,” Gray said at a campaign stop in Richmond, where he fielded questions on economic, energy and education issues. “I’ve often gone against the grain. There were people who said we wouldn’t survive as a business. … That it was unlikely that I’d be elected mayor.”
Gray’s campaign is historic for another reason. He’s openly gay in a state where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis became a symbol of opposition to same-sex marriages. Citing her religious beliefs, she was jailed five days in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Not long after that, Kentucky elected a governor who openly supported her resistance.
The mayor faces a half-dozen primary opponents: Sellus Wilder, a former Frankfort city commissioner; former Army Green Beret Ron Leach of Brandenburg; Tom Recktenwald, a retired technology teacher from Louisville; Jeff Kender of Phelps; Rory Houlihan of Winchester; and Grant Short of Owensboro.
Paul faces two little-known challengers — James Gould and Steve Slaughter — in the GOP primary and likely will head into the general election as the heavy favorite.
“We’re in a state that’s red and turning redder,” said University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss. “So any Republican would start with a huge advantage here.”
Democrats suffered deflating losses in the last two statewide elections. Now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell trounced Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in 2014 and Republican Matt Bevin upset Jack Conway in last year’s race for governor.
This year’s Democratic Senate primary was mostly genial, though the race turned edgier during a joint appearance on Kentucky Educational Television on Monday when some underfunded candidates took aim at Gray for tapping his personal bank account to help fund his campaign.
Gray ran a series of TV ads to raise his profile ahead of the primary.
Without naming Gray, Leach complained about the national party establishment hand-picking its favorite for Kentucky, resulting in “elitist campaigns” focusing on urban areas.
Wilder said campaigns are “turning into auctions” favoring the wealthy.
Recktenwald bluntly said that if Democrats follow their usual formula and nominate Gray, they will lose in November. Recktenwald said Congress is “broken” and that the “big reason is big money.”
“If I’m the front-runner,” Gray said, “that’s for a reason. I’ve got experience.”
Wilder, inspired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ focus on income inequality during the presidential campaign, said he wants to expand the state party’s progressive wing.
“I’m running because I believe in a nation that values the lives of real people more than we value power and profits,” he said at a recent forum.
Leach, who had multiple combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, said that since Kentucky Democrats won their last U.S. Senate race in 1992, the middle class has shrunk, wages have stagnated and the country has become more divided.
He chided Democrats for running “Republican-lite” campaigns aimed only at cities.
Gray stresses his business pedigree in campaign stops and TV ads. He portrays Paul as an obstructionist who focused more on his failed presidential bid than on his senatorial duties.
“A U.S. Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste,” Gray said.
Gray supports a higher minimum wage, an immigration system overhaul and abortion rights, saying abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.” He criticizes Paul’s efforts to curtail the federal government’s surveillance powers, saying the Republican’s approach would make it easier for terrorists to plan and execute attacks.
Gray has been more guarded when the conversation turns to homosexuality.
Asked at a forum what he would do to advance LGBT rights, Gray gave a broader answer, saying he would be an advocate for civil rights, voting rights and workers’ rights.
“I think discrimination is wrong, period,” he said.
Following his campaign event in Richmond, Gray downplayed any potential impact his sexual orientation might have on the campaign.
“What I think people care about is performance and results,” he said.
Sharon Switalski, who attended the Richmond event, said it shouldn’t be an issue, but conceded it might be in some rural areas. She said she was leaning toward supporting Gray.
“I don’t think he should have to talk about it,” she said. “He should talk about the issues. Leave the personal stuff out of it.”