When Matt Jones, the host of the popular sports talk show "Kentucky Sports Radio" landed in Washington, D.C., last week, it was his second trip to the capital since he began eyeing a run as a Democrat in the Bluegrass State's 6th District against Republican Rep. Andy Barr.
Jones, well known back home after spending 10 hours on the radio each week for the past five years talking about all the things University of Kentucky athletics, was in town a few months ago to hear a pitch from congressional Democrats about “why it might make sense to consider a run" for office.
During last week's visit, Jones was among the 45 candidates from 36 open or Republican-held congressional districts in town for three days of meetings as part of the the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's biennial "Candidate Week" – though he is still in the “recruitment” phase of a possible campaign.
“Having never run for an office — being a political junkie, but not someone involved in the day-to-day – there are some basics of things that I don’t know,” the 37-year-old said, pointing specifically to complex campaign finance regulations. “If you’re going to be a smart candidate and not some crackpot, you need to know those things.”
He is well known for his expertise on sports, but Jones said he wanted to learn the specifics about building a campaign infrastructure rather than relying fully on the knowledge of campaign consultants to focus on the minutia for him. A Duke-educated lawyer, Jones said, “I’m a detail sweater.”
Jones graduated near the top of his law school class in 2003, then clerked for three federal judges on the District of Columbia and 4th Circuit courts, each for a year, before joining the Kentucky law firm Frost Brown Todd in 2005.
At first, he tried to start a podcast for the Kentucky Sports Report website . But that site took a pass, telling Jones it would not be successful. So he created his own, Kentucky Sports Radio, in 2005.
"It shows my stubbornness — it made me want to make it successful," he said.
As his show started to gain more attention and spread across the state, Jones' attention shifted away from his legal work. He left Frost Brown Todd and started his own small law firm in 2009.
Even though the show was created to focus on athletics, it has dived into politics. In 2014, he moderated a debate on his show between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. This fall, he hosted a debate with the candidates facing off in Kentucky's heated governor's race and had an interview with presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that made national news .
And Jones has started to appear at political events. He emceed the Fancy Farm Picnic this year — an annual political cattle call in the western tip of the Bluegrass State — and has started to elevate his profile at events put on by Democrats.
He is taking the same careful approach to the possibility of becoming a candidate as he did when he entered sports radio.
"I’ve spent a lot of time in Kentucky to get a lay of the land, the political landscape, and to think about whether this is something I want to do,” he said. "I want to know that I can win. I’m not getting in this to lose."
That is why he returned to Washington last week. According to DCCC, Jones was one of only two recruits to join the announced candidates who were here for a conference designed to “ensure that House Democratic Candidates run the smartest, most effective races possible, armed with the best information and resources available.”
Along with the training and strategy sessions — including best practices for fundraising and information on "broad-brush thematics" revealed in its pre-2016 polling – the week included meetings with key groups such as the Hispanic and Black caucuses, business groups, Democratic members, donors and members of the Washington press corps.
The reaction from listeners on the possibility or running has been mixed. Some were encouraging, while others suggested he should stick around to ride out the scandal rocking the University of Louisville athletic department.
A spokesman for Barr said in August that the lawmaker was a fan of Jones' radio show, but said, "like Congressman Barr, KSR listeners are passionate about University of Kentucky athletics, not politics."
Having built Kentucky Sports Radio from scratch, Jones said the notion of giving it all up for a seat in Congress is certainly weighing on him. He said it was not clear whether Federal Communications Commission equal-time rules would require him to step aside from his day job, but he said things would certainly get complicated if he does make his candidacy official.
Dale Emmons, a longtime Democratic operative in Kentucky who most recently helped the Grimes campaign in 2014, said Jones “has a solid reputation in Central Kentucky,” and said he is very well known.
"For those unfamiliar with this basketball culture, it has nearly cult status,” he said. “There is some question as to whether or not this can be converted into political capital. However, there is little question that the fringe votes cast by the incumbent congressman in support of tea party initiatives places him at peril.”
While National Democrats have said they are eyeing Barr's district, it would appear to be an uphill climb. In 2012, Barr ousted Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler by 4 points, but quintupled that two years later over Democrat Elisabeth Jensen. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call rates the district Safe Republican .
But, with Obama off the ballot for the first time in eight years and name identification from his time on the radio that would be hard to buy, Jones — who said his week in Washington was one of the last steps in his decision-making process — said he thinks if he does get in the race, "it will be a tossup." He has said he will decide before UK starts its basketball season next month.
Jones said the kind of talk he's hearing about a congressional run from the people who say he can't do it is not unlike what he heard when he first tried to start his radio show.
"They say you're a radio host and can’t win. Those are the kinds of things that sort of drive you," he said.
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