After bruising U.S. Senate campaign, Democrats say Gray should look to Congress, constitutional offices in future

11/13/2016 08:00 AM

As U.S. Sen. Rand Paul heads back to Washington after a double-digit win on Tuesday, his Democratic opponent, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, is left assessing his political prospects.

Despite losing by 14.5 points, Democratic observers close to Gray say he has a number of options available in state politics. Kentucky Democrats are reeling after losing the state House of Representatives in a 17-seat swing on Tuesday and narrowly winning two constitutional offices – attorney general by 0.2 percent and secretary of state by 2.3 points — in last year’s election cycle.

Speaking to reporters following his loss, Gray would only say, “Never say never,” when asked about his political future.

“We’re not going to speculate on anything,” he said at his Election Day party at Lexington’s Manchester Music Hall.

Consultant Jim Cauley, who advised Gray for part of his U.S. Senate bid, said the Lexington mayor could be part of Democrats’ midterm election strategy, contending for the 6th Congressional District while fellow Democrats try to chip away at the 64-seat GOP supermajority in the state House.

Gray’s support of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who lost Kentucky by nearly 30 percent, was one of Paul’s primary opposition talking points on the campaign trail. But that didn’t hurt his vote totals in the 6th district, which he carried 52.1 percent to Paul’s 47.9 percent. In Fayette County, Gray’s home turf, he won 60.4 percent of the vote.

Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, who reported raising $2.3 million for his re-election campaign as of Oct. 19, won a third term against Democrat Nancy Jo Kemper by 22.2 points district-wide on Tuesday, by comparison.

“They (Democrats) have a small amount of resources,” Cauley said. “Pick 10 House seats and get it back to between 42 and 45 seats and go after the 6th Congressional District. That’s what they ought to do. Now if Jim’s part of that, I think that would be great. If he had put $2 million into a congressional and raised a million, you might be talking to Congressman Gray instead of Congressman Barr.”

“Democrats, instead of, ‘Oh I want to take on Mitch McConnell, I want to run for the Senate, I want to run for governor,’ you know what? Pick the small places where you can start getting your base, getting your footing again, and then over time you take things back,” he continued. “This whole thing ain’t turning around in two years, and it ain’t turning around in four or six years, and plus they’re going to redistrict the crap out of it and gerrymander it to probably where you can’t take the state House back.”

Cauley predicted that the House could stay in Republican control for a generation.

Jared Smith, a Lexington-based strategist who served as spokesman for the super PAC Kentucky Moving Forward that supported Gray in his Senate race, lamented after the election that the Lexington mayor should have run for Congress instead.

“I just think it was the wrong year, and that’s not something you know when you’re getting into it,” Smith said in an interview last week. “I mean, he has a résumé of fiscal responsibility and job creation, but in this cycle, it would be tough for anybody to overcome what happened.”

“He would have handily beat Andy Barr with the amount of votes coming out of Fayette County,” he added. “I mean, his Fayette County numbers were amazing.”

Cauley says that Gray can also stake out a position in upcoming constitutional races in 2019, possibly running in either slot on a gubernatorial ticket or for state auditor, an office that could give him a platform for future campaigns.

Another Democratic contender for higher office in the next constitutional cycle, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, lost her 2014 bid against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by nearly 15 points in a far more contentious race that drew more than $80 million in spending.

Gray, CEO of Gray Construction, has reported raising $3.4 million and loaning his campaign another $2 million as of Oct. 19, by contrast.

“He has statewide name ID,” said Cauley, who managed Gov. Steve Beshear’s gubernatorial campaign in 2007 and noted the importance of former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo’s name recognition following his unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign three years earlier.

He expects the 2019 gubernatorial contest to include a Democratic primary after the party essentially anointed former Attorney General Jack Conway in last year’s race en route to a nearly 9-point loss to Gov. Matt Bevin.

He also mentioned Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination, which she won over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders largely because of superdelegate support.

“In ’07 we had a seven-way primary and we won the thing, so I think the notion that we can pick somebody and not have primaries is bad for the Democratic Party,” Cauley said. “So let the primaries begin. If we’re sitting here a year from now and Bevin’s popularity is at 60 percent, then this is a moot point, but if his popularity’s at 40 percent like (former Gov.) Ernie Fletcher, somebody can take him.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a Video Journalist for Spectrum News and covers Kentucky politics and all the goings-on at the State Capitol. Kevin was born and raised in Frankfort so he grew up around politics and has always had the drive to follow the political process and hold lawmakers accountable. Before joining Spectrum News Kevin covered government and politics for The State Journal in Frankfort. You can watch Kevin’s work weeknights at 7:00 and 11:30 on Pure Politics, available exclusively on Spectrum News, HD Channels 403 and 715. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135.

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