U.S. Sen. Rand Paul scooped up his consolation prize easily Tuesday, defeating Lexington mayor Jim Gray to maintain his U.S. Senate seat.
This time last year, Paul, a Republican, hoped to spend this election night making his acceptance speech as president-elect of the United States.
But after an unsuccessful bid in a crowded field, Paul spent most of 2016 marching through Kentucky instead of Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, rallying support for his Senate election at town halls and local businesses.
“I want to thank each of you for giving me the privilege of defending the Constitution for six more years,” Paul said at the Galt House in Louisville. “I take that privilege seriously and will uphold my oath to defend our Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.”
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Paul led throughout the campaign, according to the limited polling available, and he acted like it. In campaign stops across the state he rarely, if ever, mentioned Gray’s name, choosing instead to focus on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her agenda.
“Rand Paul benefited from a presidential election that distracted voters from congressional contests and encouraged people to vote on partisan brand names,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
Paul continued his libertarian message of ending governmental regulations and eliminating the national debt. Paul was able to campaign on bills he proposed and his well-publicized filibusters on issues regarding privacy.
The presidential race hadn’t been called by the time Paul took the stage to make his acceptance speech, but his message to the audience struck a stark contrast from Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“I continue to believe that to win nationally, the GOP will have to become a bigger, better, bolder party,” Paul said. “We will have to welcome people of all walks of life.”
For the most part, the Kentucky campaign was a sleepy one. It wasn’t until the only debate when Gray accused Paul of having “wild-ass” philosophies that the campaign showed signs of life.
The attention wasn’t enough to cut the gap.
“The Senate election never really woke up, and we’ll never really know if Jim Gray could have gained more traction,” Voss said.
Gray outperformed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Kentucky, but he couldn’t overcome his lack of name recognition in a state that is becoming more conservative with each passing year.
“Like they say in the Broadway show “Hamilton,” it was my time to take my shot,” Gray said in his concession speech. “And even though the results aren’t what we had hoped, I’m glad I took that shot.”
Gray tried to pitch himself as a moderate Democrat — a former business leader who could go to Washington and get things done through compromise, including bringing infrastructure jobs to Kentucky.
Most candidates running for Senate were concerned that Trump’s candidacy would hurt their campaigns, but Paul benefited from support for the business mogul-turned-Republican nominee.
Paul rarely mentioned Gray’s name while campaigning but often mentioned Clinton in the hopes that widespread opposition to the Democratic nominee in Kentucky could aid the Republican senator.
Paul did his part in helping the Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate, although the outcome had not been determined late Tuesday. Whichever party wins majority of the Senate, it will have a major affect on judicial nominees.
Paul promised that he would support only a conservative supreme court nominee.
“Regardless of who wins the presidency,” Paul said, “I will not be a rubber stamp for a liberal supreme court nominee.”
Even though Gray didn’t win, his campaign was historic.
As the first openly gay man to run for Senate in Kentucky, Gray earned the distinction only a year after Gov. Matt Bevin won his election while defending a county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Gray avoided making an issue of his sexuality. When faced with opportunities to address it, he often shied away, not wanting to be identified as the “gay candidate.”
During his concession speech, Gray openly addressed his sexuality, telling the story of a gay college student who hugged him and thanked him for running.
Many Democratic officials said Gray’s sexuality wasn’t a factor, because people either didn’t care or weren’t talking about it, but Gray told the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper based in Washington D.C., that he had experienced a few “awkward moments.”
Voss said it was unlikely that Gray’s sexuality hurt him drastically. He said anyone who would vote against Gray because of his sexuality probably would have voted Republican anyway.
“The future is big enough for all of us,” Gray said. “The future has room for all of us who want to work hard and contribute to the greater good here in Kentucky and all over the country.”
Jim Gray, D 804,145
Rand Paul, R 1,075,276
99% of precincts reporting