Those liberal activists, who are incensed by Barr’s stances on health care, banking and taxes, have vowed to defeat the Lexington Republican in Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, but they’re lacking one crucial thing: a viable candidate.
The best-known Democrats in the district don’t appear eager to take on Barr, who has steamrolled his challengers since taking the seat from Democrat Ben Chandler in 2012.
For example, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and former State Auditor Adam Edelen have both said they won’t try to unseat Barr in 2018.
“(Grimes) has been pretty direct that she will not be a candidate in 2018,” said Bradford Queen, a spokesman for Grimes.
Jared Smith, the director of external affairs for Edelen Strategic Ventures, said the former auditor’s attention was directed elsewhere.
“Adam is not interested in running for the 6th. He’s busy trying to put a million solar panels on a mountaintop removal site in Eastern Kentucky and working on other projects in the area,” Smith said. “However, he is excited to see change in the 6th and looks forward to whoever the new representative will be.”
Barr’s district, which includes Fayette and all or parts of 17 other counties, has long been considered the closest thing Kentucky has to a congressional swing district. But in 2016, Barr claimed 61 percent of the vote as he sailed to victory over Nancy Jo Kemper, an outsider candidate with little party support.
Further deterring potential opponents, Barr already has $784,863 on hand for his 2018 re-election bid.
“Congressman Barr has done an excellent job representing the district, he’s a very open and accessible member so it’s no surprise that a strong Democrat does not want to challenge him,” said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.
Barr said he’s not concerned about any potential challenger.
“I’m not worried about politics. I’m worried about doing the job I was elected to do,” Barr said after a town hall in Lexington this week. “If I do the job I was elected to do, then the politics will take care of itself.”
Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District as one of 59 targets in 2018.
With the prospect of potential attention (and money) from the national party, the names of several potential Democratic challengers are being bandied about, though none has accepted the challenge.
One of the most common is Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.
Gray has shown a willingness to run for higher office, but it hasn’t been long since he spent $2 million of his own money on a failed bid to win U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s seat in 2016.
Some also question whether a seat in the House of Representatives fits the leadership style of Gray, who used to run his family’s construction business before entering politics. Serving as one of 435 representatives could be frustrating for a man who is accustomed to being in charge.
Gray declined to comment for this article.
Other potential candidates might include a handful of current or former state lawmakers. State Reps. Sannie Overly, a Paris lawyer who is chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, and James Kay, D-Versailles, are often mentioned.
Overly has met with other potential challengers to Barr, but she has not expressed interest in running for the seat herself, said party spokesman Daniel Lowry.
Kay said he is willing to consider entering the race against Barr at a future date.
“It’s an honor to be mentioned,” Kay said. “I’m not ruling it out, but I wouldn’t say I’m considering it at this point. Sorry to be vague but my focus is on family and serving the 56th (House District) at this point.”
Another name sometimes mentioned is former State Rep. Leslie Combs, a Democrat from Pikeville who once accidentally fired a handgun in her Capitol Annex office. Combs now has a condominium in Lexington. She could not be reached for comment.
Finally, there’s always a chance for the outsider candidate.
Matt Jones, the founder of Kentucky Sports Radio, fits that description.
In 2015, Jones publicly considered a run against Barr but eventually decided to take a pass. This time, he hasn’t indicated much interest in the seat and his Twitter account seems more focused on U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who doesn’t face re-election until 2020.