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Kentucky Democrats Running out of Time to Challenge Paul

With a week to file, no Rand Paul challenger has emerged after Democrats in his home state experienced big losses statewide last November. (Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)

Kentucky Democrats experienced a statewide political bloodbath in November – one that washed away the ambition of one rising star, state Auditor Adam Edelen, to challenge Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican leading a long-shot bid for the presidency, for re-election. Since then, nobody has stepped forward.  Following the announcement last week by veteran Andrew Horne that he would not challenge Paul, with only a week to go before the Jan. 26 filing deadline, most Democrats there are eyeing one man as a viable candidate to challenge him: Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.  

Gray – the second-term “nonpartisan” mayor of this Democrat-leaning metropolis in eastern-Kentucky  – confirmed to the Lexington Herald-Leader he was considering a run, but has not said more.  

“I enjoy my job as mayor, and the only reason I would consider another office is I believe Washington is terribly broken and I could make a practical contribution by helping create jobs and economic opportunity for Kentuckians,” he told the paper.  

Gray, the state's first openly-gay mayor, has wealth from a family business he could spend on his own campaign if he were to run. And as a "non-partisan" mayor, he could have a case to make when trying to argue he could be an independent actor in Washington. In his official office, Gray has hired a number of ex-staffers to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who was easily re-elected in 2014.  

As Democrats appeared to be holding their own ahead of elections last November in a state that has been trending red, there were quiet calls by some Republicans for Paul to drop his presidential bid over fears that he would be jeopardizing his Senate seat. But with their loss of the Governor's Mansion to Republican Matt Bevin and the loss of all but two down ballot statewide races last November, that talk is no more.  

And despite Paul’s weak performance in the presidential polls, dithering by Bluegrass State Democrats on selecting a candidate – along with no emergence of a formidable primary opponent – has given Paul no reason to hurry home to solidify his support. With no formidable opponent back home, Paul has been showing up to work in the Senate for 94-percent of the votes while at the same time showing up in states with early presidential nominating contests.  During last week’s main presidential debate, which Paul was not invited to due to his standing in the race, Paul chimed in from the outside in a series of posts online. He earned a great deal of media attention for pushing back against the Republican National Committee's rules, but it isn't clear what else he gained.  One Democratic operative said if Gray was to run, the presidential campaign could be something he would use against Paul. “Rand Paul’s doing us all the favors he can by complaining,” the Democrat said. “He’s reminding everybody in Kentucky he’s not been here being our Senator. The guy gets elected Senator and starts immediately running for president!"  

Contact Yokley at eliyokley@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @eyokley .

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