By Hastings Wyman –
The national political focus right now is on presidential politics. But in the Bluegrass State, with home-boy Rand Paul’s White House prospects not looking so good, the talk has turned to Paul’s US Senate reelection race next year. He has filed for the March 15 presidential caucuses in the state. But hedging his presidential bet, Paul has also filed for reelection to the Senate. Indeed, the GOP adopted the president-only caucus to avoid the problem of Paul being on the same ballot for two offices, which is barred by Kentucky law.
Paul is one of eight candidates who have filed for the presidential caucus, and “he could lose it,” says Al Cross, veteran journalist of the state’s politics. “This gives the Democrats some hope that he will … continue to run for president,” says Lowell Reese, publisher of Kentucky Roll Call, weakening his Senate reelection prospects. He “has lost ground with a lot of people,” adds Reese; “His foreign policy is not strong.”
However, polls still show that Paul has a good favorability rating among the state’s voters. (The numbers for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s are worse.)
Moreover, the trend in Kentucky is to the right, including especially the upset victory of industrialist Matt Bevin (R) in the governor’s race last month. On the federal level, there is now only one Kentucky Democrat (US Rep. John Yarmuth) holding office. So, despite any weakness Paul may exhibit, “The Democrats’ ass is in a sling,” says Cross.
The Democratic favorite to oppose Paul had been state Auditor Adam Edelen, who is young, photogenic and had a good record as auditor. “He would have been the best prospect” for the Democrats, says Reese. But Edelen is now concentrating on a business career and says he won’t run for the Senate. “But he might reconsider,” opines Cross.
Another name mentioned as a potential candidate for Paul’s seat is that of Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer (D), who lost a Senate bid in 2008. But he is not expected to run.
The third Democratic prospect is Jim Gray, Mayor of Lexington. In an interview, Gray said, “I appreciate the encouragement I’ve received to consider this race, but I also really enjoy the job I’ve got today.” He does add, “In conversations with younger people, they believe Kentucky is being taken for granted by Sen. Paul. That represents concerns by a lot of people.”
Some polling has been done on Gray’s behalf. However, he has not made any decision about running.
If Gray does run, he would have some good talking points. He gets high marks for his stewardship of Lexington, the state’s second largest city. When he came into office, the city’s pension plans were substantially underfunded. Gray worked with the police and firefighters’ unions to put the pension plans in order. And recently he signed into law a bill that raised the minimum wage to the highest level in the state. While not given to ideological pigeon-holing, Gray said he considers himself “a responsible moderate.”
Gray, elected in 2010, was easily reelected in 2014. And in a recent poll of Lexington voters, his approval rating was 65%.
Given that Lexington’s mayoral elections are non-partisan, there has been speculation that Gray might run as an independent. However, “he’s a Democrat,” says political consultant Dale Emmons who is working with Gray. In the past he has participated in Democratic activities, including serving as a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1972, at age 19. And he was later appointed by Democratic governor Brereton Jones to head the Committee on Quality and Efficiency. So sources say it is highly unlikely that Gray would make an independent bid. Nevertheless, “if he runs,” says Emmons, “it will be a Kentucky campaign. He is not interested in being recruited” by folks in Washington.
In addition to his government experience, Gray’s business background is impressive. His father died when Gray was 19, so he and his brothers took over the family building business and have built it into one of the top construction firms in the nation. It now employs some 3,000 people. Moreover, this year, some 8,000 people are employed in plants built by Gray Construction. He was CEO of the firm from 2004 till 2009, five years in which the firms’ revenues grew by 38%.
One potentially difficult problem for Gray is that in 2005, he announced that he is gay. This has not been a negative in cosmopolitan Lexington. “People admire him for that,” says Reese; “It’s one of his strong points.”
But in the rest of the state, which includes many fans of Kim Davis, the county clerk who went to jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses, Gray’s sexual orientation could be a substantial hurdle. “It would be a significant disadvantage for him,” says Reese. When asked about this, Gray says, “People want to see leadership that gets things done and solves problems. That’s what they care about.”
In sum, while Rand Paul’s presidential hopes have been fading, he is still well-regarded by his home-state voters. Nevertheless, Democrats don’t want to give him a bye and are hoping Paul’s ill-fated presidential race will make him more vulnerable in next year’s Senate race. As of now, the hottest Democratic prospect to oppose Paul is Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who may or may not run. Stay tuned.