Lexington Mayor Jim Gray entered the Democratic Primary in the Sixth Congressional District as the presumptive favorite. People knew him, they liked what he was doing as mayor and he had just won the district against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul during his failed 2016 run for Senate.
There has been no independent polling on the campaign, but, with a little more than three weeks left before the May 22nd primary, retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath is now touting in fund-raising emails and on social media that she has taken the lead.
How would Gray respond? Would he continue keeping McGrath at arms length? Would he drop the folksy ads? Would he go negative?
Gray is leaning into policy. Thursday, he brought out members of his Opioid Advisory Panel for a press conference calling for more federal funding to address the opioid epidemic. Gray's campaign said this was the second meeting of the opioid council, not an answer to McGrath's claims that she is surging.
"Policy is important, as is the mayor's record," said Jamie Emmons, Gray's campaign manager. "And that's what this illustrates. Both those things."
Gray's decision to highlight the opioid epidemic focuses on an area he emphasized as mayor of Lexington. Since 2013, when Gray assembled his first task force (focused on heroin) he's been trying to address a public health crisis common throughout the nation. That task force led to a needle exchange program and the decision to distribute overdose drugs to first responders.
"We are simply damn sick and tired from empty rhetoric and promises from Washington," Gray said. "They tell us how this is a top priority and then they go back to doing all the silly stuff before the conversation even started."
The event was similar to several Gray held during his 2016 Senate run, where he would pick a policy issue and surround himself with advocates as he unveiled the plan.
Gray wouldn't talk about the politics of the event, responding with a wave of his hand when asked about McGrath's claim that she took the lead.
"We're not gonna talk about that," he said.
But the McGrath campaign is.
In a post on his personal Facebook page last week, McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas called on the Gray campaign not to go negative with three weeks left in the campaign.
"When Amy McGrath entered this congressional race last fall, I received quite a few messages and phone calls from supporters of Mayor Gray telling me not to let the race get nasty and negative and do Andy Barr's bidding to harm the eventual nominee," Nickolas said. "... Now that we've taken a clear lead with about three weeks to go, will those same people hold others to the same standard?"
There have been no negative television ads in the race so far. Even during his only chance to directly debate McGrath on television, Gray decided instead to throw a question to State Sen. Reggie Thomas about Matt Bevin's comments on education.
Instead the negatives have been more subtle. When the candidates define themselves, they make a point to talk about traits that contrast with the other's record.
"We are running a campaign that is contrasting the candidates," Nickolas said. "The difference between Amy and Jim almost isn't ideological at all. It's who would you rather send to Washington."
Gray likes to say he's the only one with experience in the race (McGrath hasn't held elected office). McGrath likes to call herself the next generation of political leader (Gray is 64, McGrath is 42).
A recent fund-raising email from the McGrath campaign included a veiled reference to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and Gray, saying "that's the type of leader we need, not a career politician or out-of-touch millionaire."
Emmons said the McGrath campaign has attacked Gray in interviews with national outlets as well.
“Amy has called Jim everything under the sun in Washington interviews and out of state fund-raising emails while claiming to run a positive campaign back in the district," Emmons said. "She can’t have it both ways."
The veiled references are minor compared to the knock-out, drag-down fight expected between the winner of the primary and Barr in November. Outside groups have already filed open records requests with the city of Lexington looking for information on Gray, and both national parties have pledged to spend money on the race in the fall.
The closest thing to an attack in the primary came from Thomas when he said in the debate that people have called McGrath a "carpetbagger." McGrath and Gray have mostly left Thomas alone. He's campaigned on things like a single-payer model of health insurance and a buyback program for military style assault weapons.
Thomas' proposal to address the opioid epidemic? Legalize medicinal marijuana.