Politics

A crowded field of Democrats wants to unseat Republican Sen. Rand Paul this fall, even though Kentucky hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992.

During an hour-long debate hosted by Simmons College and WHAS-11 Tuesday evening, the six candidates weighed in on how Democrats could turn the political momentum around in Kentucky and declared why they were the best man to beat Paul in the general election.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, owner of Gray Construction, said Democrats need to rally around broad economic policies that create jobs.

“The Democratic Party has been at the front edge of raising the economic boat, always,” Gray said, highlighting New Deal-era polices like the Works Progress Administration and infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system.

Gray said Kentuckians would come out to vote for him over Paul because people are tired of “politics as usual.”

“Citizens are tired of the gridlock in Washington, and there is a lot of economic anxiety. All of that translates into a high turnout in the fall,” he said.

Sellus Wilder, a former city commissioner in Frankfort and environmentalist, said he’s running to provide a “progressive voice” in the Democratic Party, which he feel has skewed conservative.

“I realize an authentic progressive campaign might be a longshot in Kentucky, but I think it’s the only shot we’ve got in taking down Rand,” Wilder said.

Wilder criticized past Democratic candidates who joined Republicans in demonizing federal regulations of the coal industry even though market pressures have contributed as well.

Wilder said he won’t beat Jim Gray in fundraising, but he said he’s thrown hope behind on-the-ground campaigning, social media and attention from the press.

“The hope is just that this message is strong enough that it resonates through these channels, and so far that’s been going pretty well,” he said.

Ron Leach, a physician’s assistant and military veteran, criticized the nominating process for favoring candidates who have money to self-fund their campaigns, like Gray.

“The process that says only millionaires and billionaires need apply will lead to the same results we keep getting election after election,” said Leach, who lost to Rep. Brett Guthrie in a race for the second congressional district in 2014.

According to his campaign, Jim Gray raised $1.75 million in the first quarter of this year — $1 million of which he loaned to his cause.

“This primary will be bought by someone who will lose in double digits in the general election and will take other candidates down with him,” Leach said.

Jeff Kender, a factory worker from Phelps; Tom Recktenwald of Louisville; and Rory Houlihan of Winchester are also running for the nomination.

Grant Short of Owensboro dropped out of the race ahead of the debate.

The Democratic primary election is May 17. The winner will face the victor of the Republican primary: Rand Paul, James Gould or Stephen Howard Slaughter.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.