As Senate Races Blare Elsewhere, Kentucky’s Is Quiet

Sep 7, 2016

Credit J. Tyler Franklin/WFPL News, composite

Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race continues its sleepy pace past Labor Day as Democratic candidate Jim Gray fights to be competitive and the incumbent lays low, enjoying a Republican surge in the state.

Gray and Republican incumbent Rand Paul have — mostly through their spokespeople — squared off on issues such as revitalizing the coal industry, gun control and finding solutions to the opioid epidemic. But interest in the race has paled in comparison to the 2014 barnburner between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Steve Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said that’s partly due to there being so many competitive Senate races across the country.

“Both the Democrats themselves and the affiliated interest groups who often throw money into a Senate race have a really wide board on which to play the game this election,” Voss said.

Democrats are angling to take control of the Senate by unseating Republicans in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, drawing money and attention from groups including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which supported Grimes in 2014. So far, the DSCC has endorsed Gray but isn’t buying ads in Kentucky to support his campaign.

Still, at least 15 Democratic senators — including vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine — have contributed to Gray’s campaign via their political action committees, totaling more than $69,000.

As of the last report on June 30, Paul’s campaign had $2,223,624 on hand, including $609,050 in committee contributions. Gray had $1,077,308 in his campaign account, with $82,700 in committee contributions.

Though there has been a dearth of public polling on Kentucky’s Senate race this year, Paul’s incumbency and status after a high-profile presidential bid, along with Kentucky’s history of electing GOP senators, likely give him the advantage. Both the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report list the race as heavily favoring Paul’s reelection.

Gray has distanced himself from Democrats in debates and advertisements, billing himself as a moderate who listens to both sides of the political aisle.

“I don’t believe every Democratic idea is a good idea or every Republican idea is a bad one,” Gray says in his first commercial of the general election, released Tuesday.

Although Democrats still make up a majority of voters in Kentucky — 51 percent compared with Republicans’ 40 percent — the state is trending GOP, with Republican voter registration far outpacing that of Democrats.

The last Democrat Kentuckians sent to the Senate was Wendell Ford, who was reelected for his final term in 1992. The last time Kentuckians voted to elect a Democratic president was Bill Clinton in 1996.

Voss said it’s unlikely that Paul would be sandbagged by Donald Trump’s presence on the ballot in November, though Trump might hurt Republican candidates in more liberal-leaning states.

“It’s not likely to matter much, especially since we have a lot of those Republican-leaning voters who tend to be favoring Trump,” Voss said.

On the issues, this year’s race has bubbled over into a bona fide argument a handful of times.

Most recently, Gray accused Paul of joining Senate Republicans in blocking a bill that would have provided $600 million in emergency funding to fight the growing heroin epidemic in the country. Paul countered, saying he voted for a budget bill last year that included $1.5 billion for the cause, though the bill also repealed major parts of the Affordable Care Act, which guaranteed Democrats would oppose it.

Gray also criticized Paul for opposing a bill that would have banned people on the FBI terrorist watch list from legally buying guns. Paul argued that he voted for a different bill that would have enabled law enforcement to postpone gun sales to suspected terrorists for up to 72 hours.

The two candidates have not appeared in the same room at the same time so far. Gray accused Paul of dodging a joint appearance at the Kentucky Farm Bureau last month. After the event, Paul said the two would debate sometime later in the race.