Presidential politics, not social issues, could have more impact on state House races as Jim Gray mulls Senate run as first openly gay candidate

01/23/2016 06:04 PM

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is the most prominent Democrat openly considering challenging U.S. Sen. Rand Paul this fall, and a run would make him the first openly gay statewide candidate in Kentucky’s history.

While Gray’s sexual orientation might be an albatross in socially conservative parts of Kentucky, it might also help his appeal to national Democratic donors.

But with Democratic members of the state’s House of Representatives taking steps to shore up their conservative credentials ahead of Tuesday’s filing deadline as the majority party looks to protect their current 50-46 hold on the chamber, how would a Gray candidacy impact this year’s House races?

House Speaker Greg Greg Stumbo said an openly gay candidate hasn’t been “tested” across the state, but he did not believe Gray would affect legislative races in the fall. He noted that Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes fell to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by nearly 16 points in 2014, the same cycle that Democrats retained their 54-46 majority in the House.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, called Gray “the type of public servant that I think a lot of people would probably feel comfortable with him in public office regardless of his personal life” and said the presidential race would have a greater influence on House considering more voters hit the polls to elect a president than a senator.

“I don’t think the personalities matter that much because people view these as local races and not national races in my opinion, but it does drive turnout up, and so it will, I think, help our candidates,” Stumbo said.

An aide for Gray said Friday that the mayor would not comment until he made a decision on running for U.S. Senate. The Lexington Herald-Leader first reported his interest in the race.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover said Gray will have “absolutely zero” impact on this year’s slate of House races if the two-term mayor jumps into the U.S. Senate race.

“Outside of Lexington he’s not known,” said Hoover, R-Jamestown. “In my opinion he will have no impact whatsoever in what we’re trying to do in special elections or what we’re going to try to do in November.”

When asked whether Gray’s sexual orientation specifically would affect Democratic candidates if he enters to U.S. Senate race, Hoover said he was unsure.

“Other folks will have to make that decision on their own,” he said. “You know, I don’t know. I hadn’t even thought about that to be quite honest. It had not even crossed my mind. I just know that as the mayor of Lexington, he’s not known out across Kentucky.”

Kelsey Cooper, Paul’s spokeswoman, declined to speculate on possible Gray’s candidacy, instead highlighting the senator’s work in Congress.

“Senator Paul has tirelessly fought for the people of Kentucky, for the Constitution, and stood firm against the liberal Obama agenda and war on Kentucky coal,” Cooper said in a statement. “He looks forward to putting his record and ideas up against anyone.”

House Democrats have taken some procedural steps to advance more conservative, pro-abortion bills in the legislative process.

Twenty-nine Democrats voted to give an informed-consent bill that would require face-to-face, pre-abortion consultation with a physician 24 hours before the procedure its first reading on Wednesday, and the legislation, Senate Bill 4, was quietly given its second reading on Thursday. That same day, nine Democrats signed on as cosponsors of House Bill 257, which would limit abortions to the first 20 weeks of fetal development and require facilities to cremate the remains of aborted fetuses.

Still, Democratic consultant Jim Cauley says those who believe Gray’s sexual orientation will impact this year’s House races are “ill informed.”

He predicted that Gray could raise $10 million in a Senate campaign and, if needed, cut a check from his personal wealth to partially finance his bid so that the Kentucky Democratic Party could dedicate more resources to House elections. Gray has spent more than $1.3 million in three campaigns for Lexington mayor, according to Kentucky Registry of Election Finance records.

Cauley noted that Paul, who is also running for the GOP presidential nomination, had $1.4 million in cash on hand in his Senate campaign account as of Sept. 30. At the point Grimes jumped in the 2014 election, McConnell had nearly $9.6 million in his re-election coffers.

Female and younger voters could boost Gray’s candidacy as they turnout in greater numbers during presidential elections, Cauley said, giving Gray a 30 percent shot initially in a run against Paul.

“I think all those people worried about Jimmy are just silly because I think at the very least he could 46, 47, 48 percent, and that’s all the House candidates need,” he said. “They just don’t need a whitewash.”

Asked specifically about Gray’s sexual orientation, Cauley dismissed its importance within a presidential electorate other than for those older than 65. In fact, he said that fact will help him fundraise with progressive donors.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said Gray is a personal friend, and he described the mayor as intelligent and sophisticated, whose record in office fare well in a Senate contest.

He dismissed any notion that House Democrats could face negative political ramifications by Gray’s sexual orientation.

“I think people will judge Jim Gray by his term as mayor,” Beshear said this week. “He has been the mayor of the second-largest city in the commonwealth, and that has a proven track record. People are going to look, if he decides to run, at the positive impacts he’s made and what he could bring to being a U.S. senator, and that’s what he’ll be judged on.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not return a request for comment, but Cauley said he expects the group will spend millions in Kentucky this year.

“A gay man running for Senate against a hated-by-the-progressive-movement Rand Paul, you think they won’t get pressure out of L.A., out of New York, out of San Francisco, out of Chicago, out of Miami, Atlanta?” he said. “They’ll spend $2 million just to slap Mitch McConnell. Now I don’t know if they’ll spend $5 million, but keeping McConnell and Rand Paul down is worth $2 million to the DSCC.”

Republican strategist Scott Jennings said in his opinion the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee will have more of an influence because “that person is going to be overwhelmingly liberal and unpopular in Kentucky.”

“Not since 1992 has a Democrat running for statewide federal office in Kentucky eclipsed 50% of the vote, and that’s not going to change in 2016,” Jennings said in an email too Pure Politics. “These Democrats running down ticket from their party’s federal nominees in the presidential and senate races will be carrying some really heavy policy baggage.

Hoover said he had not given much thought to who might be the best presidential candidate e as a standard-bearer for House Republicans, but Stumbo gave a memorable Election Night speech in November in which he pinned House Democrats’ hopes on former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Stumbo alluded to as a female jockey on a horse dubbed “Arkansas Traveler.”

Asked about the prospect of having Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, at the top of the ticket, Stumbo quickly shot down the hopeful’s chances.

“I don’t think Bernie Sanders is going to be on the ballot,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about Bernie Sanders.”

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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