When Democrat Matt Jones, a popular Kentucky sports radio host, announced he would not challenge Republican Rep. Andy Barr for re-election, fears rose within the Democratic Party's ranks that it might just forget about making a run for the district it held as recently as 2012.
But on Thursday, only five days before the filing deadline there, Kentucky Democrats have finally found a candidate. Nancy Jo Kemper, a 65-year-old United Church of Christ minister from Lexington, said she will trade one pulpit for another — a political one — to take on the second-term lawmaker this year. “It started as a wild idea,” she said, but as she thought about it more, she concluded that, in this year that has brought success to other political outsiders, voters might just give a non-politician like her a chance. “I’m rooted with a lot of passion and a lot of energy. I didn’t see anybody stand up, so I said, 'Why not?'”
In this state where Democrats have experienced serious losses in the Obama era — most notably in 2015 when the party lost all but two statewide elections — Kemper said she is “excited to be a Democrat” and is proud of what they have done, including Obamacare, and would not run away from her party affiliation.
Without naming her, Kemper took a subtle jab at Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the party’s nominee against Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014, who famously refused to say for whom she voted in the presidential election. “What I think is evasive is not saying you voted for President Obama when you did.”
“I sense myself wavering between moderate and liberal, depending on the issues,” she said.
While Kemper is a newcomer to electoral politics, she has not avoided forays into high-stakes politics. As the then-director of the Kentucky Council on Churches in the late 90s and early 2000s, Kemper helped lead the fight against the state’s powerful horse-racing industry, which was leading an effort to allow slot gambling machines at racetracks, an effort that put her at odds with some of the Bluegrass State’s top Democrats.
These days, Kemper said she thinks prominent Kentucky Democrats will be with her. To be competitive against Barr, she said she needs to raise between $1 million and $2 million, and is already reaching out to them. On Thursday, she met with former state Auditor Adam Edelen, once a rising star within the state party who had his eyes on Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s seat before his re-election loss last November . And soon, she said she plans to meet with former Gov. Steven L. Beshear to seek his advice and support.
Before telling congregants at her church two Sundays ago that she launch a campaign, Kemper also sought the advice of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — a group that had earlier urged Jones to run . “As a prominent faith leader, Nancy Jo’s passion for serving others has earned her much respect from people in Kentucky,” said Jermaine House, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based group. “Nancy Jo’s commitment to the community will stand in stark contrast to Congressman Barr who has a record of contributing to Washington’s dysfunction.”
Republicans are ready to defend Barr. He won re-election in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote, and the district — which Jack Conway, the 2015 Democratic candidate for governor, actually won despite his statewide loss to Republican Matt Bevin — is currently rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.
"After the DCCC's first choice candidate bailed, we eagerly welcome their backup plan into the race for Kentucky's 6th District," said Chris Pack, a spokesman for The National Republican Congressional Committee. "While Nancy Jo Kemper is busy defending the failed policies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Andy Barr will continue fighting for Kentucky's priorities in Washington."
In all of the commonwealth’s 223 years, voters have only elected two women to the U.S. House. But in this election year that could feature a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket, Kemper said her resumé is one that could appeal to voters in this district that has supported Democrats in the past.
“The idea of a woman –a grandmother who doesn’t have deep a pockets and who is living basically on Social Security; someone who knows how to be a single mother; someone who understands that Washington has some severe broken places; and someone who is intent on reaching out to try to find ways to heal the divide that keeps people from working together with dignity – is very appealing to our voters,” she said.
Correction, 11:53 a.m. An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of women Kentucky has sent to the House of Representatives.
Contact Yokley at EliYokley@RollCall.com and follow him on Twitter @EYokley. Related: Kentucky Democrats Running out of Time to Challenge Paul Kentucky Governor Restores Thousands of Ex-Felons’ Right to Vote Kentucky Sports Radio Host Decides Against a Campaign for Congress Kentucky Democrats Reassess Race Against Rand Paul Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.