When I heard Mayor Jim Gray’s concession speech last week after he failed to unseat U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, it struck me as the first speech of his next campaign. So, when I met him for an interview Tuesday, I wanted to know: What’s next?
The race wasn’t close, and Gray’s loss was expected. Paul beat him by 14 percentage points in an increasingly conservative state that went big for Donald Trump and saw control of the state House of Representatives swing overwhelmingly to the GOP.
And there was this: Gray was running as an openly gay man in Kentucky, where a year ago Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis became a national figure by taking an illegal stand against the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
“The results weren’t altogether what we wanted, but considering the circumstances our performance was strong,” Gray said.
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“We out-performed Hillary by 10 points, which was the highest of any competitive Senate race in the country, without significant outside dollars,” he added. “If Hillary had gotten Obama’s (Kentucky) numbers in ’08, it could have been a different outcome.”
Gray won only a handful of counties — he won Fayette, but didn’t carry his native Barren County — but he ran a statewide campaign and was competitive almost everywhere. He credits much of that to a great staff and well-organized campaign.
The “what’s next” buzz started quickly last week: Might Gray challenge Matt Bevin’s re-election for governor in three years? U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in two years? Sen. Mitch McConnell in four years, when the Senate majority leader would be 78 years old?
“You never say never,” said Gray, 63, declining to speculate on any of those races.
Gray said he is happy serving as Lexington’s mayor, although he also declined to commit to running for a third four-year term.
“I love focusing on what we have to do right here in Lexington,” he said. “I think what I learned from the campaign is that from this role, from the mayor’s role, we can help hold Washington accountable.”
Gray campaigned as a moderate Democrat, often repeating this catch-phrase: “Not every Democratic idea is a good one, not every Republican idea is a bad one.” He said that resonated with voters statewide.
“The moderate message was a message people wanted to hear,” he said. “There is a really high level of exhaustion with the partisan nature of things today.”
Gray didn’t make his sexuality part of his campaign, but on election night he emphatically acknowledged his historic role to supporters in his concession speech.
“We have made tremendous progress,” he said that night. “But there are still too many kids in our country who grow up feeling like they have to hold on to this secret about who they are because if anyone finds out it could cost them everything. There may be fewer of those kids than there used to be, but one is too many.”
Gray said he had many gay Kentuckians thank him for running. He knows the issue cost him some votes, but he said only once did a voter, an elderly man, say anything negative to him directly.
“People have different points of view and different opinions and they struggle themselves with change,” he said. “And we’re going through a lot of change, which is arguably why my race was important.
“What mattered was it didn’t matter” to most voters, Gray said. “And I think that, too, is affirming. It illustrates that doing your job and being a role model in the LGBT community will inspire others.”
While Gray declined to speculate on future campaigns, he said he expects his performance to earn him a voice among Democratic Party leaders as they try to rebuild from a historic shutout.
Gray said his campaign spent about $6 million — a small amount for a U.S. Senate campaign. The wealthy construction executive said he didn’t know how much of his own money he ended up spending on the race, but it was “significant.”
Gray said he considers it a personal investment in his political education. “It was like getting an accelerated Ph.D. in national, international issues and in knowing your state better,” he said.
And I’m betting Gray plans to put that education to use.