Thus far, the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky has been more of a leisurely stroll.
Less than eight weeks from Election Day, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, ran his first television ad of the campaign Wednesday in Louisville, a positive spot that focuses on Paul’s career as an eye surgeon. His Democratic opponent, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, has been running advertising in Louisville touting his experience as a businessman since the beginning of September.
Compare that to 2014, when Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was running against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, and the ads started running statewide in July.
“It’s been a fairly sleepy Senate campaign so far,” said Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
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The big difference? The 2014 race was seen as competitive by the national Democratic party and political donations were pouring into the state. The 2016 race is not.
“One interpretation to put on the slow movement of our Senate campaign is that it’s not considered competitive,” Voss said.
In 2014, the race for McConnell’s seat was one often featured by national media. Paul’s seat isn’t even a blip on the national radar. Projections by The New York Times give Paul a 94 percent chance of winning the election.
The Gray campaign dismisses such numbers, though they acknowledge the political landscape has changed in Kentucky.
“This year is way different than 2014,” said Cathy Lindsey, spokeswoman for Gray’s campaign. “We’re not running against the majority leader of the Senate, we’re running against a freshman senator.”
Paul, though, has a 48 percent approval rating among voters in the state, according to a recent poll by Morning Consult. McConnell, on the other hand, has a 39 percent approval rating and 51 percent disapproval rating.
“When you’ve done all of the work that Dr. Paul has done for Kentucky there really isn’t a need to rush paid ads,” said Kelsey Cooper, Paul’s spokeswoman.
While Paul’s high name recognition lessens his urgency to run TV ads, there may be a bigger factor at play: money.
“The money isn’t flooding in,” Voss said.
Gray is spending $64,475 on TV ads between September 14th and September 19th to Paul’s $37,100. In the same period two years ago, McConnell spent $47,880 and Grimes spent $114,357 — after having been on air for two months.
As of June 30th, Paul had about $2.2 million cash on hand after getting a late start raising funds because of his failed presidential bid. Meanwhile, Gray had about $1 million, about 35 percent of which came from his own pocket.
Though their lack of money may have helped spare the majority of Kentucky from political ads to date, it won’t last. Both Senate campaigns said they plan to have statewide ad campaigns running before the election.
According to Voss, late advertising like we’re seeing this year used to be the standard. It would keep the candidates fresh in the minds of voters when they went to the polls. More recently, there’s been a transition to getting a message out early.
“With polling becoming more common, it became clear that getting a fast start would feed on itself,” Voss said.