Sen. Thomas talks his interest in possibly challenging Congressman Barr in next year's midterms

05/23/2017 09:13 PM

LEXINGTON — As national Democrats look to wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans in next year’s midterm elections, state Sen. Reginald Thomas believes the road to a majority must pass through Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District.

Thomas, in an interview with Pure Politics at his church Tuesday, said his interest in the race rose after his potential opponent, Congressman Andy Barr, voted for the American Health Care Act earlier this month.

“When you vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and bring back pre-existing conditions as a bar to health insurance, when you vote to raise the premiums on people just because they get elderly, when you vote to say that you want to take 500,000 Kentuckians off the health-care rolls and 24 million nationally because you want to change the Medicaid eligibility requirements, I think that’s wrong,” Thomas said before ticking off a number of the state’s poor health rankings.

“We have, as (former University of Kentucky) President Lee Todd used to say, some of the ugliest health-care statistics across the states, and you want to say to those people, ‘I don’t care about your health, I’m just going to repeal the Affordable Care Act,’” he continued. “You know, that’s just morally wrong.”

Thomas, D-Lexington, is openly considering a run for the seat Barr, R-Lexington, won in 2012. He’s the only Democrat so far who has confirmed interest in challenging the three-term incumbent, as first reported by CNHI News, and he says he hopes to make a decision within the next 60 days.

Thomas says he’s had one friendly — but brief — discussion with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about the race, and if he mounts a campaign, he believes he will need to raise about $2 million.

The incumbent, who has won handily by at least 20 points in his two re-election campaigns thus far, has a substantial leg up in fundraising, accumulating a war chest with nearly $785,000 in cash on hand as of the latest reporting period.

Barr spokesman Rick Van Meter said the congressman isn’t focused on potential political contenders, but rather fulfilling campaign promises and staying in touch with his constituents.

In a separate statement sent through Barr’s Washington, D.C., office, Van Meter defended Barr’s vote on the AHCA and said the federal law also known as Obamacare “has put our current health care system in a cost death spiral and severely limited insurance options for Kentuckians.”

“Without reform, access to care for Kentuckians is threatened,” Van Meter said. “The American Health Care Act would ensure that all Americans have greater access to affordable, quality health care including those with pre-existing conditions. The bill as passed by the House guarantees that insurance companies cannot deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition in any state. Additionally, there are multiple layers of protections for those with pre-existing conditions to ensure insurance is affordable.”

Barr has faced some critical crowds at recent town halls in the district, something Thomas says shows a dissatisfied electorate.

The Democrat says he can effectively capture that energy because as a politician, he hears and understands the concerns of voters.

“I listen to people,” Thomas said. “I think about what they say. I reflect on what they say. I try to make it a part of who I am and say, you know, ‘This is what I need to do to make life better for them.’ I bring it inside myself, and then use that as a means of saying, ‘This is what I want to do to help the voters here in Kentucky.’”

Daniel Lowry, spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, also pointed to Barr’s town halls and said the congressman “doesn’t even understand how the current health care system works.”

The 6th Congressional District seat, he said, must be “rescued.”

“He’s working for the wealthy and the big banks who have funded his campaigns,” Lowry said of Barr in a statement. “He has been against health care for millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians. He refuses to stand up against what Trump is doing to give big gifts to the super rich while hurting working families and the poor.”

But Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, dismissed any threat against Barr’s re-election in next year’s midterms.

“We welcome national Democrats’ efforts to invite every left wing liberal into the race,” Watson said in a statement. “Meanwhile, Andy Barr will continue to represent the values of the people of Central Kentucky.”

While his sights are firmly set on Barr, Thomas acknowledges that he will likely have to win a primary if he decides to enter the race.

U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, a former Navy fighter pilot from Covington, is reportedly interested in the race, and other names mentioned as possible Democratic contenders include Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, a wealthy businessman who hasn’t publicly ruled out running for the office, and former state Rep. Leslie Combs, who represented Pike and Letcher counties in the General Assembly before retiring in 2016.

Asked specifically how a Gray candidacy would alter his decision-making process, Thomas said he and the mayor will make their choices independently.

A primary, Thomas said, would be “good” and “allows you to get out early, to tell people who you are, give them a chance to eyeball you and look you up down and state your positions so people know where you stand on the issues and what you will do for them when you go to Washington.”

“I expect a primary,” he said.

While Fayette County is the 6th Congressional District’s largest county with 40 percent of its registered voters, Thomas says he knows he will need to appeal to a spectrum of the electorate in order to win, should he launch a campaign for the seat.

Although he lost to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul by nearly 15 points in last year’s Senate race, Gray carried the 6th district, which includes a number of rural counties like Wolfe, Menifee, Montgomery and Fleming, with about 53 percent of the vote.

That, Thomas says, shows that voters care more about candidates than their respective parties. He also pointed to his own Senate district in the heart of Lexington, which includes “some conservative pockets,” as an example of his ability to reach a broader electorate.

“I’ve got people of all income groups, all constituencies, all ethnic groups,” he said. “I represent a very diverse population already. I’m very proud of that and I think I’ve done that well, so representing a diverse group of people of different political spectrums, incomes, different regions, it’s nothing more than what I’m doing now, so I feel very comfortable in going out and talking with people of all different viewpoints.”

Until he makes a decision, Thomas says he will continue consulting with trusted politicos and researching his chances in the central Kentucky district.

That includes polling the race, something he’s begun doing. However, Thomas wasn’t willing to share any numbers in Tuesday’s interview.

“Not right now,” he said. “I will say this, to be frank: The polling I’ve done has not discouraged me from going forward. I will say that much. It’s been very optimistic in terms of my potential involvement in this race.”

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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