Jim Gray hopes message on jobs will help in E.Ky., where statewide Dems haven't fared as well as in past

08/28/2016 05:05 PM

OLIVE HILL — It’s an area of the state that has drifted more and more conservative in recent statewide elections, but Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray sounded optimistic of his prospects in eastern Kentucky at the Carter County Democratic picnic and reunion on Saturday.

“We’re not giving up any county anywhere,” Gray told reporters after speaking to more than 50 Democrats assembled at Grayson Lake State Park.

“We know that there are votes all over Kentucky and there are votes that want to be for Jim Gray, and we’re going to pursue each and every one of those votes. That’s why we’ve got a robust field organization. That’s what we’re putting together. Very proud of that, and this is where people want jobs.”

Appalachian counties and those nearby were once Democratic strongholds.

But that’s changed in recent election cycles.

When the overmatched Lois Combs Weinberg earned just 35 percent of the vote against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2002, the only seven counties she won were in or near the state’s eastern coalfields.

By 2014, McConnell won a handful of coal-producing Appalachian counties for the first time ever, including Pike and Floyd, home of House Speaker Greg Stumbo.

Carter County went for Democrat Jack Conway in his 2010 race against Sen. Paul, but McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin won it in the two most recent statewide elections.

Jeffrey Scott, chairman of the Carter County Democratic Party, said he believes Gray can connect with voters in his and other rural counties.

“There is a belief that maybe people with progressive ideas are not accepted in Kentucky, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Scott said. “I think progressive ideas, progressive notions, full and complete transparency and inclusive of all people is as important in Kentucky as it is anywhere else, and I think we’re going to see that this election.”

For former Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen, Gray’s objective in rural counties is simple: talk about jobs.

“He’s a person who’s literally been involved in the creation of tens of thousands of jobs in rural Kentucky,” Edelen said. “… While Jim Gray has made jobs, Rand Paul makes speeches, and I think what people in rural Kentucky need is a lot less talk and a lot more action.

Rocky Adkins, Democratic floor leader in the Kentucky House of Representatives, said Gray’s message should be delivered personally.

Adkins believes the more Gray’s seen and heard, the more likely voters will respond his campaign.

“I think that rural voters have got to get to know him,” Adkins said. “I think you’ve got to work hard in these counties. I think you’ve got to come to festivals and parades. I think you’ve got to come to things like the Democrat rallies that they’re having here in Carter County today.

“I still think that if you’re going to energize voters, it’s got to be face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and if people know who you are and they feel comfortable with who you are, then they’re more apt to get involved in your campaign and they’re more apt to get out and work hard for you.”

Paul’s campaign dismissed Gray’s chances in eastern Kentucky given his support of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whose comments against the coal industry have been something of a rallying cry for Kentucky Republicans.

“Kentuckians know that Dr. Rand Paul is the only candidate who will fight back against the EPA’s burdensome regulations while also proposing his own Economic Freedom Zone plan to revitalize Kentucky’s coal counties suffering under Obama’s War on Coal,” Paul campaign spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said in a statement.

While Gray is bullish on his chances against Paul, he hasn’t drawn cover fire from national Democrats.

Senate Majority PAC, a top Democratic political action committee launched by former aides to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, has poured millions into contests in Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has invested $2.6 million in Pennsylvania’s Senate contest and more than $173,000 in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona and Illinois, according to data from the website OpenSecrets.org.

Asked if he expects national groups to jump in his race, Gray said he’s only focused on what he can control.

“I think we’re doing a great race right now,” he said. “We’re poised to be competitive with Sen. Paul, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

Edelen, who was once considered a likely candidate for this year’s Senate race until his re-election loss last year, said national Democrats may reconsider Kentucky as the Nov. 8 election nears.

“I think because Donald Trump has been such a disaster at the national level, it’s clear that he’s put Senate races in play all over the country where I don’t think the national party thought that they would be competitive, so that’s expanded the map dramatically, and I suspect that as this campaign develops, that expanding map will come to include Kentucky,” he said.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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