Lexington Mayor Jim Gray filed Tuesday morning to run for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, declaring his bid to unseat Republican Rand Paul on the day of Kentucky’s filing deadline.
Gray, 62, told the Herald-Leader on Monday night that he decided to challenge Paul last week and that he “absolutely” thinks he can win despite the state’s rightward lurch and widespread disapproval of President Barack Obama.
“I feel like that there’s an environment in Washington that’s toxic, and people across the country, and including Kentucky, are looking for alternatives,” Gray said.
Gray is chairman of Gray Construction, a successful family business, and was elected to his second four-year term as mayor in 2014. He said both experiences have taught him “that leading isn’t just about talking — you’ve got to listen as well.”
His entry into the race makes him the most prominent Democrat to come forward to challenge Paul, whose listing presidential campaign has made him vulnerable to defeat, Gray said.
“I certainly think that he’s been spending more time focused on his presidential campaign than he has in the interests of Kentucky, and because of that he’s vulnerable,” he said.
Gray, who is openly gay and is running statewide in a state that’s also home to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, said he had “no illusions” about how uphill his battle would be.
“Clearly, it will be tough,” he said.
But, he said, he is “not given to tilting at windmills” and doesn’t think voters will focus on his sexual orientation.
“I know what it’s like to challenge conventional thinking and conventional patterns,” Gray said. “What I believe people want is performance and results. That’s what they are about. That’s what counts.”
Paul’s focus Tuesday appeared to be getting on to the main stage for Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, having been kicked out of the last prime-time debate.
But with less than a week to go until the Iowa caucuses and Paul’s campaign claiming that “Rand is on the rise,” Doug Stafford, senior adviser to both of Paul’s campaigns, issued a statement about the Senate contest shortly after sending out a fundraising email for the presidential campaign.
“As Sen. Rand Paul prepares for re-election, he hopes voters will remember his tireless work to balance the budget, his fight against President Obama’s war on coal, his fight against Obamacare, and that Sen. Paul has returned to the taxpayer over $2 million from his office budget,” Stafford said.
Paul told Fox News Channel’s America’s Newsroom earlier Tuesday that he was “happy to run on my record, and I think the people of Kentucky will respond accordingly.”
Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tuesday that Gray “will be sunk by Obamacare, the war on coal and the rest of Barack Obama’s toxic agenda.”
“Since their most recent wipeout in November, Democrats have been desperate to find a warm body to run for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat,” Blair said. “Just hours before the filing deadline, they finally convinced Jim Gray to take one for the team.”
Any statewide candidate who aligns with Democrats “has already suffered irreparable damage in the Bluegrass State,” he said.
While Democrats hustled to find a viable candidate to challenge Paul, in the end, a small crowd of Kentuckians filed to run against the senator.
By Tuesday’s 4 p.m. filing deadline, two Republicans and seven Democrats were running against the senator.
Other Democrats seeking the nomination are Rory Houlihan of Winchester, Jeff Kender of Phelps, Ron Leach of Brandenburg, Tom Recktenwald of Louisville, Grant T. Short of Owensboro and Sellus Wilder of Frankfort. Republicans challenging Paul are James R. Gould of Lexington and Stephen Howard Slaughter of Louisville.
Leach, who filed to run just minutes before Gray, is a retired Army major who served 21 years on active duty and eight years in the National Guard.
Leach said he was “looking forward to a respectful and robust debate with the mayor when that time comes.”
“I have nothing against Mayor Gray,” he said. “I think he makes a great mayor, and I think Lexington should keep him as a mayor.”
As for Obama, who has been a mainstay in Republican attack ads in Kentucky over the past two elections, Gray laughed when asked if he voted for the president.
“I did,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he does.”
He added: “This campaign’s going to be about the difference between Rand Paul’s perspective on things and Jim Gray’s.”
Returning several times to the theme of bitter partisanship in Washington, Gray said “the fighting that’s gone on in Washington has compromised everybody, including the president.”
“It’s compromised everyone,” he said. “It’s compromised the country, and it’s compromised the presidency as well.”
Asked about the Democratic candidates running for president and whether any of them could help him if they are at the top of the ticket, Gray chuckled.
“I think if Hillary Clinton were to say that she wanted to visit Kentucky, then you know I’d be happy to show her how Washington can learn from Kentucky,” he said.
Gray’s entry into the race comes less than a week before the Iowa presidential caucuses. It is unclear whether Gray has a head start over Paul, who has focused the majority of his fundraising efforts on his presidential campaign.
Gray would not say whether he’s willing to spend any of his personal wealth on the race, saying he intended to have a serious fundraising effort.
“It’s no secret that campaigns are expensive,” he said. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to raise the resources that we need.”
The mayor talked about his “roots in southern Kentucky” — he is from Glasgow — and about working to restore the American dream for Kentucky families.
“We really experienced that American dream, and that was when it meant good-paying jobs and it meant security for their families and their future,” Gray said. “Today that dream is really out of reach for far too many people.”
He also talked about his record as mayor, a nonpartisan position, and having to “work across party lines every day to get things done.”
“We turned deficits into a surplus, we saved millions of dollars in pension reform and health insurance reforms, and created nearly 15,000 new jobs,” he said.
Members of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council said Kentucky’s second-largest city wouldn’t suffer while Gray campaigns for higher office.
“We have great commissioners and we have an even better chief administrative officer (Sally Hamilton),” said at-large Councilman Kevin Stinnett, who has served on the council for more than a decade. “We also have a good council that is experienced. I think the city won’t miss a beat.”
Councilwoman Angela Evans said Gray was personable, and his combination of business and government experience would appeal to voters statewide.
“He also understands you can’t always run government like a business,” Evans said.
Beating an incumbent and running statewide as a Democrat will be an uphill battle, but Gray should not be underestimated, Evans said.
“I expect him to put forth a really big effort,” she said. “He had a race last time. He can definitely campaign and get on the trail.”
Here’s an introductory video that Gray posted Tuesday morning on his new campaign website, GrayForKentucky.com.
Reporter Beth Musgrave contributed to this story.