Politics

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is keeping his message focused on the economy heading into the final week of his campaign for U.S. Senate.

Gray, a Democrat, is challenging incumbent Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican.

About 100 people turned out to rally for Gray at a Highlands bar Friday evening. The event drew Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, state Senator Morgan McGarvey, local legislators, city officials and other supporters.

Gray is offering a moderate stance to voters and a willingness to work with both Republicans and Democrats.

But he’s facing an uphill battle.

In Kentucky, Republican support is surging, and the last Kentucky Democrat to be elected to the Senate was Wendell Ford in 1992. The last time Kentuckians voted to elect a Democratic president was Bill Clinton in 1996.

Gray is steering his message away from social issues that some Kentucky Democrats are beginning to see through a conservative lens.

“There are a lot of issues and a lot of things that we need to address, but at the end of the day, people want a good job,” he told the crowd.

Gray said Kentucky voters are telling him they want better jobs above all else.

“We’ve got to get our economy on track to where it’s growing at a pace where it can allow middle-class jobs and the middle class to prosper,” he said. “That’s exactly what I’m focused on.”

Gray and Paul are set for their first and only debate Monday evening. Held by KET, it airs on 89.3 WFPL News at 8 p.m. on Monday.

On Friday, Gray accused Paul of being afraid to debate him.

The two have faced off the issues of coal industry revitalization, gun control and the opioid addiction epidemic. And earlier this week, they appeared together at an Owensboro forum where they jabbed at each other over support for coal miners.

There’s been little polling in this year’s only Kentucky Senate race. Paul seems to have the advantage, according to the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report and the Babbage Cofounder Pulse poll released earlier this month, which showed Paul leading Gray 33 percent to 26.5 percent, with 40 percent of would-be voters undecided.

Paul has leaned on what many Republicans call the “war on coal,” which they say will be perpetuated by a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Fischer told the crowd Paul has done little to benefit Kentucky during his time as senator. And he commended Gray for being “a likable guy.”

“And people relate to him. That’s how people vote,” Fischer said.

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey said Gray should work to establish his “own brand,” separate from the campaign at the top of ticket.

“People are tired of national politics right now,” he said. “And for good reason.”

Gray’s message and likability resonated with the crowd of voters gathered Friday evening.

Craig Zahradnik, from Louisville, said he votes “both ways” but was wearing a pro-Gray sticker at Friday’s rally. He said he’d like to see less emphasis on social issues and more discussion about the economy.

“Things that the Congress and Senate are really supposed to be working on,” he said. “I hate that people vote just because of abortion, just because of guns, but that’s what it boils down to.”

He said Gray appears to be “an issues guy,” and that’s what he likes.

“I’m encouraged by that,” he said.

Pat Layton, who just moved to Louisville from Frankfort, said she knew Gray’s grandfather and has met his mother. She said “he was just raised right.”

“He’s just a really fine fella,” he said. “I think he’ll be one of the best United States senators we’ve ever had.”

Gray said he’ll spend the final week of the campaign reaching out to as many voters as he can.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.