Updated: 2:10 p.m. | Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, Ky., filed paperwork on Tuesday declaring his candidacy for Senate — a last-minute move by a man viewed by most Kentucky Democrats as the party's hope to take on Republican Sen. Rand Paul for re-election this fall.
"Every voter expects an option," he told Roll Call in an interview. "I know it’s tough and I have no illusions of this race. But I hear from people from all across our city and state who are hungry for change." His candidacy — in the works for months, but made official on the very last day of candidate filing in the Bluegrass State — comes just a few months after Democrats there lost all but two statewide elections that swept away the chances of their first choice candidate to challenge Paul, former Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen.
“There’s no question that the Republican tsunami here in Kentucky in 2015 has made 2016 more difficult,” Edelen told Roll Call ahead of Gray's announcement. But if anyone can do it, he thinks it is Gray, the wealthy construction businessman who became mayor of the state's second largest city in 2010.
"He has a real chance to draw some powerful distinctions between a guy who has created a lot of jobs in Kentucky verses a guy who treats Kentucky like a rental home," Edelen said. Gray, he added, is “a hell of a likable guy,” but admitted 2016 will be a tough fight for Kentucky Democrats. Along with a Senate race, the two parties expect to be in a vicious fight for control of the state House of Representatives, the last chamber of its kind held by Democrats in the South, whose dominance by Republicans is a pet project of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the powerful Republican of Kentucky.
“There’s going to be a lot of energy on the Democratic side to hold the House of Representatives and I think that will go to the benefit of a Jim Gray or any other Democratic candidate for other offices," said former Kentucky Gov. Steven L. Beshear, the 71-year-old lion of Democratic electoral politics there.
But Beshear, who watched Republican Matt Bevin ride a wave to the governor's mansion as an anti-Obama, becoming one of the few Republicans to do so since the Civil War, admits beating Paul will be tough.
"Whether you're running for dog catcher or governor, if you’re a Democrat — the Republicans run a picture of you and Barack Obama together. That’s the sum total of their campaigns here in Kentucky," he said, adding that, depending on how the Republican presidential nomination race shakes out, that effect might be weakened in 2016. "I would predict that Hillary would be more popular at the ballot box than President Obama has been."
By Wednesday afternoon, Paul was already adopting the playbook that McConnell used to blow his 2014 Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, out of the water by Election Day.
"Nobody can tell at this point," if Gray will prove a formidable challenger, Paul told CNN. "But I do think that the hardest part he will have is, you know the last Democratic candidate wouldn't even admit she voted for President Obama. That's how unpopular he is in Kentucky. So, he'll have to admit who he voted for. Does he support Obamacare? Does he support the war on coal?"
Gray said, "I did," when asked by Roll Call if he had voted for Obama, but added, "that doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything.”
Some Kentucky Democrats have suggested that Gray would be willing to self-fund his own campaign, potentially matching the money Paul would raise for his own effort. Gray said he "would not speculate" about his willingness to spend some of his own wealth, only saying, "‘what I know is that we will bring the resources to the race to wage an effective campaign.”
Both Beshear and Edelen said they would target Paul as an absent senator, spending time focused on his ambition rather than Kentucky, and believe Paul could be proven as weak if he does not win the presidential caucus he demanded the Republican Party of Kentucky throw for him.
Paul's team has said it expects to solidify Republican support — he has no formidable primary opponent — and added he will counter that by pointing to his voting attendance record and his town halls in the state.
Edelen said if he were running, he would also hit the libertarian-minded Republican on the issues of national security, where Paul presents himself as something of an isolationist — an outlier in his own, hawkish Republican Party.
“I think the most successful approach to defeating Rand Paul is to talk about his real neglect of the people of Kentucky in pursuit of his national ambitions,” he said. “He is weak and wrong on foreign policy, and badly out of step with a state that has produced some of the great soldiers and sailors of any state in the country."
When Gray was elected mayor, he made history as the state's first openly gay mayor. In a state that is home to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk famous for her opposition to gay marriage, it is questionable whether it is ready elect a gay senator.
“That is a great question and we’re going to find out," said Edelen. "For the majority of Kentuckians, Jim Gray’s personal life will not matter. But there’s going to be pockets where it matters a lot.” Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Contact Yokley at EliYokley@RollCall.com and follow him on Twitter @EYokley. Related: Kentucky Democrats Reassess Race Against Rand Paul Rand Paul Makes First Payment on Kentucky Caucus 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.