LOUISVILLE — Lexington Mayor and Glasgow-native Jim Gray on Tuesday claimed the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky, giving his struggling party a wealthy candidate with a business pedigree to take on first-term Republican Sen. Rand Paul in a state trending toward the GOP.
Gray touted his city hall experience and background in helping build his family's successful construction company. His campaign is groundbreaking for another reason: he is an openly gay candidate in a state where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis became a symbol of opposition to same-sex marriages.
Gray defeated six underfunded opponents in the Democratic primary.
Paul easily defeated his two Republican challengers, James Gould and Steve Slaughter, taking a successful first step in putting his failed presidential campaign behind him.
The Democratic challenger showed a willingness to put his own money behind his campaign.
Gray raised nearly $1.9 million since entering the Senate race in late January, bolstered by $1 million he loaned his campaign. Leading up to the primary, Gray sidestepped questions about how much he would invest in the campaign, saying: "I intend to have the resources to run an effective campaign."
He had nearly $1.1 million cash on hand, putting him only slightly behind Paul, who had nearly $1.4 million on hand, according to their campaign finance reports.
During the low-key primary, Gray looked past his Democratic foes and set his sights on Paul. He portrayed the Republican incumbent as a political obstructionist and ideologue who spent much of his first Senate term running for president.
"A U.S. Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste," Gray said during the campaign.
Paul countered that he maintained a 96 percent attendance record for Senate votes, helped sponsor more than 100 bills and offered more than 300 amendments to bills during his term.
"I think it will be a difficult sell to try to convince people I'm not doing my job," Paul said in a phone interview on Tuesday, hours before voting ended.
Paul spent Tuesday tending to his Senate duties in Washington. In a brief video, the senator said he voted by absentee ballot and discussed his limited-government themes.
"I try to be here every day working hard for the taxpayers of Kentucky, making sure that big spending and excessive regulations are not stealing any more of our Kentucky jobs," he said.
The race for the Democratic Senate nomination included Gray; Sellus Wilder, a liberal filmmaker inspired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and military veteran Ron Leach, who served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other Democratic candidates were Tom Recktenwald, Jeff Kender, Rory Houlihan and Grant Short.
Kentucky Democrats haven't won a U.S. Senate election since 1992.
Last November, Republicans solidified their political power in Kentucky by winning all but two statewide constitutional offices, including governor.
Paul has already started to use what has been an effective strategy for other Kentucky Republicans by trying to tie Gray to national Democrats — namely President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton — especially on coal-related environmental policies.
"It will be very, very difficult for any Democrat to run in Kentucky because ... it's virtually your patriotic duty to vote against Hillary Clinton," Paul said in the interview Tuesday.
He cited Clinton's comments that Republicans pounced on as an attack on the sagging coal sector.
During a March appearance on CNN, Clinton was asked how her policies would benefit poor white people in Southern states. She talked about setting aside billions to protect health benefits for coal miners and their families. But in the soundbite that drew Republican ire, she said, "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
Clinton later called the comment a "misstatement."