Kentucky US Senate race ‘an uphill battle’ for Democrat Jim Gray

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, center, filed papers to run for the U.S. Senate in the secretary of state office at the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, center, filed papers to run for the U.S. Senate in the secretary of state office at the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky Democrats are looking to Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to challenge Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who recently ended his presidential bid.

But in spite of his polished appearance and business success, Gray has a big obstacle to overcome: the ‘D’ that comes after his name.

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, that was once an asset, but no longer. Other Kentucky Democrats in recent elections have fared poorly at winning Senate seats or the governor’s mansion in a culturally conservative state where Republicans have made significant inroads.

Gray is the first openly gay mayor of Kentucky’s second-largest city, but he now he faces voters who remain divided on gay-rights issues following last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Although Gray is expected to spend some of his own personal wealth on the Senate race, few expect the national Democratic Party to invest much in Kentucky as it focuses on states that would give it a better chance of reclaiming a Senate majority.

Barring a Republican Party meltdown at the national level, some observers say, Gray has little chance of unseating Paul and would be doing well to break above 40 percent.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes campaigns and elections, said she had one question for Gray:

“Why are you running?”

Gray, a former construction company executive who was twice elected mayor of Lexington, filed documents to enter the race barely a week before Paul ended his presidential bid.

Three weeks in, Gray’s campaign barely has a presence online. He has a website, but it’s difficult to find, and other than a video, a short biography and a “contribute now” button, there isn’t much else.

His Senate campaign Twitter account has about 950 followers, compared with nearly 14,000 on his mayoral account. Since Jan. 27, a day after he filed to enter the race, the only new post to his campaign Facebook page has been a note of condolence to the family of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“We’re still in launch,” Gray said in an interview. “We plan to add the resources that are required to wage a competitive race.”

It’s too early to tell how much help Gray, the former CEO of Gray Construction, a company his father founded, will get from the national party.

Duffy said Democrats had a better shot at ousting Republican incumbents in blue-tilting states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. The party isn’t likely to make Kentucky its priority, she said.

“They’re going to focus on the five or six races they need to flip the Senate,” Duffy said. “Kentucky’s pretty far down the list.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hasn’t endorsed anyone in Kentucky’s May primary, where Gray is the most prominent of several Democrats vying for the Senate seat. That’s not unusual: The national party also hasn’t made an endorsement of the two Democrats who are competing in California’s Senate race, which the party is all but certain to win.

“Rand Paul put his long-shot presidential bid ahead of his constituents and that has hurt his reputation,” Lauren Passalacqua, the party’s national press secretary, said in a statement that did not mention Gray. “We’re confident voters will embrace a candidate who will actually put Kentucky first.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, has thrown its weight behind Paul.

We look forward to the campaign ahead to ensure that Sen. Paul continues to serve the Bluegrass State in the Senate,” its chairman, Ward Baker, said in a statement after Paul ended his presidential campaign earlier this month.

How competitive Democrats will be in Kentucky depends on whom Republicans nominate as their presidential candidate. It also depends on how successfully the party is able to use Paul’s failed presidential run against him.

“Kentucky voters deserve a candidate that doesn’t consider the United States Senate a consolation prize,” Sannie Overly, chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said in a statement. Like the national party, the state party hasn’t endorsed Gray or anyone else in the race.

So far, it isn’t clear that Paul’s bid for the White House did any lasting damage to his reputation with Kentucky voters, said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

“He’s clearly got an advantage with this electorate,” Voss said of Paul. “It’s fertile ground for Republican candidates.”

In 2010, then-state Attorney General Jack Conway lost to Paul by more than 10 percentage points. Former Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, easily won re-election the following year, but the trend against Democrats resumed in 2012.

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat, lost to Republican Andy Barr in a district that includes Lexington. Since then, Republicans have held five of Kentucky’s six seats in the House of Representatives.

In 2014, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes lost to Sen. Mitch McConnell by more than 15 points. And last year, Conway lost the governor’s race to Republican Matt Bevin.

Gray wasn’t the national Democrats’ first choice to challenge Paul, but the party’s favored candidate, former state Auditor Adam Edelen, lost his re-election bed in November. Edelen subsequently declined to run against Paul, giving Gray the opening.

While Gray gives Democrats a credible candidate, political observers say, the party’s losing streak in Kentucky doesn’t provide him with a clear path to victory.

“Any Democrat is going to have an uphill battle in that race,” said Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of political science at the University of Kansas.

Haider-Markel, who has extensively studied gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates for office around the country, said that Gray’s Senate bid was a pioneer: He’s the highest-profile gay candidate to run for statewide office in a conservative state.

“This is the first real test of that,” Haider-Markel said. “How he does is an indicator for others.”

Kentucky gained some notoriety last year when Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing her religious beliefs. She spent five days in jail after a federal judge found her in contempt.

Although not all Kentuckians embraced Davis, some Republican presidential candidates and Bevin, who was running for governor, rallied to her cause. Although the issue may have played a role in Bevin’s victory, it’s not clear how it could affect this year’s Senate race.

Voss said that if voters had a reason not to vote for Paul, they could overlook Gray’s sexuality if that made them uncomfortable.

“People have ways of making exceptions to their prejudices,” he said.

Gray said he preferred to stay focused on economic issues.

“I’m going to use my business record and my record as mayor,” he said.

Gray is likely to make the case that Paul’s Senate record isn’t a good match for the state he represents. Paul, a libertarian, filibustered the Patriot Act last year for 10 and a half hours.

“He’s focused on grandstanding,” Gray said. “I’m focused on what the people in the community are interested in.”

However, Duffy said Paul hadn’t given Democrats much to work with. He ran for president, but he also showed up to vote.

Paul has the advantage of incumbency, and Republicans will invest in protecting him.

Kentucky has changed, Duffy said, in a way that makes it very challenging for Gray.

“It will require a lot to make this a competitive race,” she said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

Democrats in Kentucky

Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in party registration, Democrats have had a tough time winning top offices since 2010. Some examples:

2010: Jack Conway loses Senate race to Rand Paul

2011: Steve Beshear wins re-election as governor

2012: Ben Chandler loses House seat to Andy Barr

2014: Alison Lundergan Grimes loses Senate race to Mitch McConnell

2015: Jack Conway loses governor’s race to Matt Bevin