Lexington Mayor Jim Gray filed to run for the U.S. Senate Tuesday morning as a Democrat, declaring his candidacy to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul on the day of Kentucky’s filing deadline.
Gray, 62, told the Herald-Leader Monday night that he decided to challenge Paul last week, and he “absolutely” believes he can win despite the state’s rightward lurch and widespread disapproval of President Barack Obama.
“I feel like that there’s an environment in Washington that’s toxic, and people across the country, and including Kentucky, are looking for alternatives,” Gray said.
The chairman of Gray Construction, a successful family business, Gray is in his second term as mayor. He said both experiences have taught him “that leading isn’t just about talking — you’ve got to listen as well.”
Gray’s entry into the race makes him the most prominent Democrat to come forward to challenge Paul, whose listing presidential campaign has made him vulnerable to defeat, Gray said.
“I certainly think that he’s been spending more time focused on his presidential campaign than he has in the interests of Kentucky, and because of that he’s vulnerable,” he said.
Gray, who is openly gay and running statewide in the same state that’s home to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, said he has “no illusions” about how uphill his battle will be.
“Clearly, it will be tough,” he said.
But Gray said he is “not given to tilting at windmills,” and he does not believe voters will focus on his sexual orientation.
“I know what it’s like to challenge conventional thinking and conventional patterns,” Gray said. “What I believe people want is performance and results. That’s what they are about. That’s what counts.”
Since their most recent wipe out in November, Democrats have been desperate to find a warm body to run for Kentucky's U.S. Senate seat. Just hours before the filing deadline, they finally convinced Jim Gray to take one for the team.
Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee
Other Democrats seeking the nomination include Jeff Kender of Phelps; Ron Leach of Brandenburg; Tom Recktenwald of Louisville; and Grant T. Short of Owensboro. Other Republicans challenging Paul include James R. Gould of Lexington and Stephen Howard Slaughter of Louisville.
A senior adviser for Paul acknowledged the senator’s field of opponents by touting his record in Washington.
“As Senator Rand Paul prepares for re-election, he hopes voters will remember his tireless work to balance the budget, his fight against President Obama’s war on coal, his fight against Obamacare, and that Senator Paul has returned to the taxpayer over $2 million from his office budget,” Stafford said in a statement.
Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, quickly released a statement Tuesday morning that said Gray “will be sunk by Obamacare, the war on coal and the rest of Barack Obama’s toxic agenda.”
“Since their most recent wipe out in November, Democrats have been desperate to find a warm body to run for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat,” Blair said. “Just hours before the filing deadline, they finally convinced Jim Gray to take one for the team.”
Any statewide candidate who aligns with Democrats “has already suffered irreparable damage in the Bluegrass State,” he said.
As for Obama, who has been a mainstay in Republican attack ads in Kentucky over the last two elections, Gray laughed when asked if he voted for the president.
“I did,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he does.”
He added: “This campaign’s going to be about the difference between Rand Paul’s perspective on things and Jim Gray’s.”
Returning several times to the theme of bitter partisanship in Washington, Gray said that “the fighting that’s gone on in Washington has compromised everybody, including the president.”
“It’s compromised everyone,” he said. “It’s compromised the country, and it’s compromised the presidency as well.”
I think if Hillary Clinton were to say that she wanted to visit Kentucky, then you know I’d be happy to show her how Washington can learn from Kentucky.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray
Asked about the Democratic candidates running for president and whether any of them could help him if they are at the top of the ticket, Gray chuckled.
“I think if Hillary Clinton were to say that she wanted to visit Kentucky, then you know I’d be happy to show her how Washington can learn from Kentucky,” he said.
Gray’s entry into the race comes less than one week before the Iowa presidential caucuses. It is unclear if Gray has a head start over Paul, who has focused the majority of his fundraising efforts on his presidential campaign.
Gray would not say if he’s willing to spend any of his personal wealth on the race, saying that he intends to have a serious fundraising effort.
“It’s no secret that campaigns are expensive,” he said. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to raise the resources that we need.”
The mayor talked about his “roots in Southern Kentucky” — he is originally from Glasgow — and working to restore the American dream for Kentucky families.
“We really experienced that American dream, and that was when it meant good-paying jobs and it meant security for their families and their future,” Gray said. “Today that dream is really out of reach for far too many people.”
He also talked about his record as mayor, a non-partisan position, and having to “work across party lines every day to get things done.”
“We turned deficits into a surplus, we saved millions of dollars in pension reform and health insurance reforms and created nearly 15,000 new jobs,” he said.
Members of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council said Kentucky’s second-largest city won’t suffer while Gray campaigns for higher office.
“We have great commissioners and we have an even better chief administrative officer (Sally Hamilton),” said At-Large Councilman Kevin Stinnett, who has served on the council for more than a decade. “We also have a good council that is experienced. I think the city won’t miss a beat.”
Councilmember Angela Evans said Gray is personable and has a combination of both business and government experience that will appeal to voters statewide.
“He also understands you can’t always run government like a business,” Evans said.
Beating an incumbent and running statewide as a Democrat will be an uphill battle, but Gray should not be underestimated, Evans said.
“I expect him to put forth a really big effort,” she said. “He had a race last time. He can definitely campaign and get on the trail.”
Here’s an introductory video that Gray posted Tuesday morning on his new campaign website, GrayForKentucky.com.
Reporter Beth Musgrave contributed to this story.