Politics & Government

'It takes money.' Why Reggie Thomas is struggling in Kentucky race for Congress.

Where Reggie Thomas stands on health care, guns and opioids

Hear the stance of Kentucky congressional candidate Reggie Thomas on healthcare, guns, and the opioid epidemic.
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Hear the stance of Kentucky congressional candidate Reggie Thomas on healthcare, guns, and the opioid epidemic.

Editor's Note: This is the third of three profiles of leading candidates in the Democratic primary to represent Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District.

Several times during the 2018 Legislative Session, as state Sen. Reggie Thomas descended the stairs leading away from the Senate chambers in the Capitol, he was greeted with a cheer.

“Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!”

The rallying cry, coming from teachers protesting the controversial Republican-backed pension bill, echoed through the Capitol. It was similar to the one he heard at the Lyric Theater in downtown Lexington, the day he announced his candidacy for Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District last July.

Thomas was the first major candidate to announce. Surrounded by family and friends, he made his pitch for why he’d be the best Democrat to defeat U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington.

He launched a progressive race, featuring plans for single-payer health care, the legalization of medicinal marijuana, a program to buy back military-style assault rifles, and dreams of building major roads.

The Kentucky State University law professor has quietly toured the district, attracting small groups of people to his listening tours, pitching his agenda to a district President Donald Trump won by 16 percentage points.

It hasn’t been easy for Thomas. His tour has been funded in part by the $58,200 Thomas has loaned his own campaign — more than half his total earnings in 2016.

It hasn’t been enough. In an era when campaign contributions often play a significant role in an election's outcome, Thomas has trailed former fighter pilot Amy McGrath and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray throughout the campaign.

Sen. Reggie Thomas was part of Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate at Transylvania University. The candidates are seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in the November general election. Matt Goins

McGrath and Gray, the favorites in the race, have each spent more money on television ads in one week than Thomas had on hand at the end of the last financial filing deadline.

“He hasn’t raised the money and it takes money,” said James Sargent, chairman of the Anderson County Democratic Party. “He just hasn’t.”

But when Thomas is asked whether he’ll drop out of the race, it’s a firm no. Not because he’s trying to bring attention to a particular agenda. Not because he wants to play spoiler to Gray or McGrath. Because he says he’ll win.

“I believe that when people go to the polls they are going to vote for me, more than they're voting for the other two and I will be the nominee for this party,” Thomas recently said at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

The advocate

Thomas paced the front of a classroom at BCTC one Friday afternoon.

“Our country is at a tipping point,” he said. “There are those that have an intentional plan to change democracy in our country and we need to decide what kind of America do we live in?”

His primary goal was to encourage the faculty members of BCTC to follow the path of public school teachers and start advocating for higher education in the Capitol.

“We need more money in higher education,” Thomas said, pointing out that the state is funding higher education at 1994 levels.

Thomas has long been an education advocate.

After graduating from Bryan Station High School, Thomas headed to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. and then Harvard Law School. He was briefly an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington D.C., before joining the faculty at the University of Kentucky Law School in August 1980.

He raised his family in Lexington, where all three of his kids went to public schools, and helped out with his son's little league baseball team (Thomas' favorite sport is baseball and he's a big fan of the Cubs).

State Sen. Reggie Thomas hugged his mother, Wanda Thomas. Matt Goins

In 1984, when Thomas was denied tenure at UK, he resigned from the position. In 2013, documents obtained by the Herald-Leader under the Open Records Act showed that faculty questioned Thomas' teaching methods and his lack of quotation marks in two articles.

Thomas, who said he was the first black law professor at UK, asked the chancellor to investigate the tenure decision at the time, saying discrimination may have been involved.

After his resignation, Thomas became general counsel at Kentucky State University.

He took his first shot at political office in 2012, when he lost a race for the Kentucky House of Representatives to Republican Robert Benvenuti. Thomas tried again in 2013, when he ran for State Senate against three other candidates to replace Democrat Kathy Stein.

He won the race and has since been well known in the Senate for impassioned floor speeches. Education is a common topic.

When he announced his first attempt at federal office last year, one of the topics he mentioned was his opposition to charter schools.

'I am very electable'

Education is largely a state issue, though the federal government has some say through the Department of Education, but Thomas had just finished a state legislative session where the authorization of charter schools was a hot button issue and Democrats throughout the country were fuming over the Trump Administration’s nomination of charter school advocate Betsy DeVos for education secretary.

It was a prelude to the teacher movement that would come to Kentucky in 2018. Thomas was there at every rally as thousands of teachers descended upon Frankfort to protest Republican changes to the state’s pension system.

He wasn’t the only congressional candidate at the rallies, but he was the only one with a vote.

After his speeches, they’d chant his name. Then they’d resume their favorite refrain. “Remember in November! Remember in November!”

Thomas has tried to build on that energy. He’s talked about how he would work to bring federal money to the University of Kentucky and how he’d like to place a surcharge on Wall Street transactions to help forgive student loan debt.

It’s reasonable to think that teachers' anger might bleed over into a primary election for Congress, but it hasn’t so far. All three major candidates say they’re outraged at what Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is doing to the public education system, making it difficult for any one of them to carve out an advantage on the issue.

To help set himself apart from Gray and McGrath, Thomas has staked out positions slightly further to the left as he traversed the district.

Those stances, though, can be a difficult sell to rural Democrats, but Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones said Thomas' message resonates with some people in Appalachia. Particularly, Thomas' stance on medicinal marijuana in an area ravaged by the opioid epidemic.

“It’s a debate that’s taken place not only in Kentucky, but in other states,” said Jones, D-Pikeville.

Thomas campaigned with Jones in 2016, when both were up for re-election to the state Senate. Jones said people in Pike and Elliott County still ask him about Thomas.

“Reggie Thomas does understand rural Kentucky,” he said.

6th Congressional District Map.jpg
Chris Ware

During a televised debate between the three major Democratic candidates, Thomas was asked if he was electable in the district's rural counties. The question, Thomas said, has a coded racial message. A black man has never been elected to federal office in Kentucky. But neither has an openly gay man or a Democratic woman.

"I think I am very electable,” Thomas added. “I've been elected twice already ... And my district, my senate district, is predominately white.”

The spoiler

Thomas had a potentially clear path to the nomination when he announced his candidacy in July. McGrath was still an unknown quantity, a Marine Corps veteran who was moving to the district after being away from Kentucky for 20 years. Gray was riding a see-saw of rumors about whether he would run for Congress or seek a third term as mayor.

The money froze early, as people waited to see who else would get in the race. Then it went elsewhere.

McGrath reported collecting $771,532 after her first three months in the race. Gray reported raising $344,213 in his first month. Thomas had only raised $297,083 as of March 31, including the $58,200 he’s loaned to his own campaign.

“I think it’s shameful that the Democrats appear to have basically abandoned Reggie in this race,” said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.

Having money doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate will get elected, but it certainly helps. His fundraising woes have made it difficult for Thomas to gain traction.

Still, Thomas remains optimistic about the race.

"I'm still raising money,” he said. “Now I haven't raised the kind of money my opponents have, but the money still keeps coming in."

But where Thomas sees momentum, political observers see a struggling campaign.

“It would be surprising with so little time left to go that you would have that kind of drastic shift,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

Thomas, as a recognizable face in the district, has the ability to pull votes from either McGrath or Gray. That means he has likely been asked to drop out of the race and endorse one of his opponents.

“Whenever you have two main candidates fighting, the candidate in third place gets a lot of pressure to drop out,” Voss said.

It's mostly guesswork, Voss said, to say which candidate would benefit from such a move, especially because there hasn't been any independent polling of the race.

Thomas , though, shows no signs of stepping aside.

“One thing you can say about Reggie Thomas is he is not a quitter,” Jones said. “And he will continue to fight for what he believes in."

Kentucky State Senator Reggie Thomas’ (D) campaign has launched the first in a series of web videos spelling out priorities of his campaign in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district.

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