Politics & Government

The field was already crowded. Why did national party push Jim Gray to run for Congress?

Why does Jim Gray want to run for Congress? Here’s one of his reasons.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray touts his experience as mayor of Lexington as a reason why voters should elect him to Congress in the Sixth Congressional District.
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Lexington Mayor Jim Gray touts his experience as mayor of Lexington as a reason why voters should elect him to Congress in the Sixth Congressional District.

For months leading up to his Tuesday announcement, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray received calls from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, urging him to challenge U.S. Rep. Andy Barr for his seat in Congress.

He got calls after state Sen. Reggie Thomas entered the race in July. And he got calls after former fighter pilot Amy McGrath’s campaign announcement went viral.

Now that Gray has officially entered the race, the McGrath campaign is citing the DCCC’s recruitment of Gray as evidence that he is a traditional establishment candidate, out of touch with the grassroots voters it believes are the future of the Democratic Party.

“The idea that the national Democratic party, leadership at the highest level, would say ‘no, we want the establishment candidate with high name ID that can write a check’ says that they haven’t learned any lessons from the last three elections,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager.

McGrath, 42, is a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who has never held elected office.

The Gray campaign dismissed the idea that the two-term mayor of Lexington who spent $2.5 million of his own money on an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016 is an establishment candidate.

“This is silly,” said Jamie Emmons, Gray’s campaign manager, Wednesday. “We’re in Frenchburg, Kentucky at the Cornbread Cafe and after this the mayor will do three more stops tonight in the Eastern part of the district.”

Emmons said the mayor’s decision to run was primarily based on calls from local people, including friends and family in the district, not the DCCC.

The DCCC did not respond to a request for comment.

Video titled "Told Me" which announces U.S. Congressional campaign of retired Marine Lt. Colonel Amy McGrath (D) in Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District.

Painting Gray as an establishment candidate could be an effective strategy for a McGrath campaign attempting to grab attention — and name recognition — in a district she moved to in June.

Without the same entrenched political base as Gray, McGrath must position herself as an outsider in hopes of attracting voters who are fed up with the national Democratic Party’s leaders.

“If I were Amy’s campaign that’s exactly what I’d say,” said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, who encouraged Gray to enter the race. “It’s pretty obvious that nationally if you’re not someone who has been tainted by politics for a long time, that’s something good on the résumé for a lot of voters.”

Yarmuth said there were real reasons for the DCCC to recruit Gray, especially in a district the national party sees as winnable in their efforts to retake the House of Representatives in 2018.

“They looked at him and said ‘he’s a two-term mayor with over 70 percent job approval rating,’” Yarmuth said.

Nickolas’ complaints mimic a national debate over whether the Democratic Party has lost recent state and national elections because of a lack of new candidates and fresh ideas. The internal party debate spilled into the mainstream during the 2016 election, after complaints from supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, that the Democratic National Committee tilted the primary toward eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Yarmuth, Kentucky’s only Democratic Congressman, said he doesn’t think the race for Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District is similar to the presidential contest.

“I think what the DCCC is supposed to do is find the strongest candidate to win seats that we’re trying to win,” Yarmuth said.

Nickolas said he was puzzled that the DCCC heavily recruited Gray, saying that McGrath fit the profile for the type of candidate national Democrats wanted in local races — she’s a female veteran with a young family and new to politics.

And she instantly drew national attention and money. McGrath outraised Barr in the first few months of her campaign, bringing in $771,532 to Barr’s $300,113.

“When a political party’s first choice for a candidate is ‘let’s get the rich mayor from a big city that can write a check,’ how is that going to fix the system?” Nickolas said.

Yarmuth said he thinks Gray, McGrath and state Sen. Reggie Thomas are all strong candidates in the 6th District primary. But he said Gray is the strongest of the three.

Perennial candidate Geoff Young is also in the race.

“I don’t get involved in primaries,” Yarmuth said. “I don’t endorse. But I am looking forward to working with whoever emerges from the primary.”

State Sen. Reggie Thomas announces that he'll challenge Rep. Andy Barr for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics