LOUISVILLE (AP) — Seeking to break his party’s U.S. Senate losing streak, Lexington’s Democratic Mayor Jim Gray set his sights on Sen. Rand Paul from the start, portraying the Republican as an obstructionist more preoccupied with winning the White House than doing his job.
But first Gray must defeat six primary opponents in Tuesday’s election.
They include Sellus Wilder, an unabashed liberal filmmaker inspired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and military veteran Ron Leach, who served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other Democratic candidates are Tom Recktenwald, Jeff Kender, Rory Houlihan and Grant Short, but they appeared to lack the funds or name recognition to be competitive.
Paul faces two primary challengers — James Gould and Steve Slaughter, neither of whom is regarded as a serious threat.
Gray touts his mayoral experience and business pedigree in helping build his family’s successful construction company. He acknowledges that taking on Paul poses “a big challenge” in a state trending Republican, but insists it’s doable.
Kentucky Democrats haven’t won a U.S. Senate election since 1992.
Gray calls Paul an ideologue who spent much of his first Senate term campaigning for the presidency in early caucus and primary states.
“People are tired of that,” Gray said. “What has he done for Kentuckians?”
The libertarian-leaning Paul juggled dual campaigns for the White House and re-election to the Senate until early February, when he ended his presidential bid.
Paul campaign spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said the senator tended to his Capitol duties, maintaining a 96 percent attendance record for Senate votes.
She cited his “unwavering defense of our liberties,” including his efforts to curtail the federal government’s surveillance powers and protect gun-ownership rights.
“Kentuckians will have a choice between Rand Paul, a strong and proven leader for Kentucky, or his opponent, who will be a rubber stamp for the destructive Clinton-Obama agenda of the ‘war on coal,’ outrageous regulatory overreach and an assault on our liberties,” Cooper said.
Gray recently said “the rug has been pulled out from under” coal, due in part to government regulations and market conditions.
“These are some of the most productive people in America, and we should do all we can to bring jobs and opportunities to them, because they are in a very distressed condition,” he said.
Besides his base in Lexington, Kentucky’s second-largest city, Gray’s biggest asset might be his personal bank account. The businessman has raised nearly $1.9 million since entering the Senate race in late January, bolstered by $1 million he loaned his campaign, according to his campaign-finance report. Gray had nearly $1.1 million cash on hand, putting him only slightly behind Paul, who had nearly $1.4 million on hand.
Gray ran a series of TV ads introducing himself to a statewide audience.
Gray has been coy about how much of his own money he’ll put into his Senate bid, but added: “I intend to have the resources to run an effective campaign.”
Wilder, a former Frankfort city commissioner, raised just $32,378 to support his progressive-themed campaign, his finance report showed. He relied on social media to get his word out. Wilder said the progressive wing, energized by the competitive race between Sanders and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, was a boost to his campaign.
“The real goal is to build a diverse coalition of constituent groups that tend to be unrepresented by our political process,” he said. “Democrats in Kentucky in these statewide contests have a tendency to run as far to the right as they can. … The only thing we know for certain is that we can’t win the general election with the same old strategy.”
Gray predicted he will have support from Clinton and Sanders backers.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes predicted 20 percent of Kentucky’s more than 3.2 million registered voters will cast ballots Tuesday.
Gray is running a groundbreaking campaign as an openly gay candidate in a state where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis became a symbol of opposition to same-sex marriages.
Gray has downplayed any trailblazing role, saying the subject doesn’t come up among voters.
“What I have seen is that people care about performance and they care about results,” he said. “And that’s what I’m going to focus on.”