Jim Gray’s decision to challenge U.S. Rep. Andy Barr for re-election rather than seek a third term as Lexington’s mayor sets off a political earthquake sure to keep Central Kentucky shaking for the next year.
It creates a wide-open mayor’s race, and it gives Barr serious competition in a mid-term election that could end with Democrats retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gray has more money, name recognition and political accomplishments than either Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath or state Sen. Reggie Thomas of Lexington, who already were campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the 6th District seat, along with perennial candidate Geoff Young.
But that doesn’t mean Gray, the wealthy former CEO of his family’s construction company, can skate to a primary victory.
Thomas, a black lawyer, is well-known in Democratic circles and popular with his constituents. McGrath’s military background could help her attract conservative voters. Both are well-spoken, serious candidates.
Although he failed to unseat U.S. Sen. Rand Paul last year, Gray ran a respectable statewide campaign. Being openly gay seemed to hurt him less than many people expected.
Gray’s biggest strengths are his business background and a record of accomplishment as a popular mayor. He has successfully tackled tough problems in city government and launched ambitious projects. Lexington is on a roll, and Gray can take much of the credit.
Gray’s biggest challenge will be keeping the primary fight from getting ugly. Democrats will need a united front in the general election to unseat Barr in a district that has grown increasingly conservative outside of Lexington and Frankfort.
Immediately after Gray’s announcement, Barr’s spokesman tried to paint his Democratic challengers as part of “the extreme liberal Obama-Clinton-Pelosi agenda.” The question is, does that tired GOP rhetoric still work?
Every new president suffers a mid-term backlash, and President Donald Trump’s is expected to be especially strong. Trump carried the 6th District but has had a bitterly divisive first year in office. His approval rating is at historic lows and his campaign is under federal investigation for collusion with Russia.
Barr has supported Trump and been an outspoken advocate for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which provided health insurance to thousands of his Kentucky constituents. Barr also supported the unpopular GOP tax overhaul, which mostly benefits corporations and rich people. His close ties to Wall Street and the banking industry seem ripe for attack. Gray is a data geek, and I doubt he would have entered this race without good polling data showing he can win.
A Gray-Barr race would be expensive, but both candidates can count on a lot of outside money. Barr has support from national business and financial interests. With Democratic donors seeing an opportunity to retake the House, Gray would seem like a good investment.
One testament to Gray’s popularity as mayor is that he has no obvious successor.
Hours after Gray’s announcement, at-large Council Member Kevin Stinnett said he would run for mayor. Vice Mayor Steve Kay, at-large Council Member Richard Moloney also are considering it. Lexington mayors typically come from the Council ranks.
But the strongest candidate could turn out to be former Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who also is considering a run. Her retirement in 2014 surprised many people, because she was a widely popular and accomplished problem-solver and consensus-builder.
The mayor’s race will offer an interesting window into Lexington’s never-ending battle over growth and development. Expect the developers’ money to be on Stinnett and maybe Moloney. It won’t be on Gorton or Kay, both of whom are against expanding the Urban Services Boundary anytime soon. Public opinion appears strongly against expansion, too.
Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty, a University of Kentucky vice president who challenged Gray for re-election in 2014, said he is thinking about another run.
The rumor mill also has focused on Alison Lundergan Grimes, who cannot seek a third term as secretary of state. Grimes ran unsuccessfully against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014 and has clear ambitions for higher office. She also is involved in a lawsuit from a former state Board of Elections staffer who says he was fired in retaliation for accusing Grimes’ office of improperly gathering voter information for her campaigns.
Adam Edelen, a former state auditor who lost his re-election bid last November, also is said to be looking at running for mayor.
What do either of them know about local issues and being Lexington's mayor? That's a good question, which opponents and a lot of voters would be sure to ask.