Politics

A mayor, a filmmaker and an Army veteran are the front-runners in the seven-man Democratic primary for Kentucky U.S. Senate.

Although no public polling has been conducted on the race, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray appears to be the favorite — having secured an endorsement from the Lexington Herald-Leader and amassed a respectable campaign war chest. Gray raised $1.75 million in the first quarter of this year — $1 million of which was his own money.

During a debate on Wednesday between Gray, filmmaker Sellus Wilder and veteran Ron Leach, the candidates reserved their punches for the likely Republican nominee — incumbent Sen. Rand Paul.

Gray criticized Paul for devoting too much time to his failed presidential bid, which extended from early 2015 through February of this year.

“A U.S. Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste,” Gray said. “He knows more about the corn fields of Iowa and the coffee shops of New Hampshire than he does about Kentuckians’ problems.”

Jim GrayJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Jim Gray

Paul spent much of 2015 running for president after being declared “the most interesting man in politics” by Time magazine in 2014. He disbanded his presidential campaign after a poor performance in February’s Iowa Republican Caucuses but has had little to worry about from GOP challengers in the primary election for his Senate seat.

Former Frankfort city commissioner Wilder has emerged as a potential challenger to Gray’s front-runner status, promoting himself as the “progressive alternative” to the mayor.

“The only chance we’ve got of defeating Rand Paul is with an authentic progressive candidate who can drive up turnout in the Democratic base, who can lean into the base, fire it up and excite it instead of running away from it,” Wilder said during the debate.

Sellus WilderJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Sellus Wilder

Wilder criticizes Democrats for skewing conservative on issues like environmental regulations to try and pick up votes from an increasingly Republican electorate in Kentucky.

He’s secured endorsements from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, philanthropist Christy Lee Brown and author Wendell Berry.

Ron Leach, a physician’s assistant from Brandenburg, criticized Paul for his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Paul voted against budget compromises that would have kept the federal government open while Leach was on his last tour in Afghanistan. Leach said the episode was “distracting” to soldiers who didn’t know if they would get paid.

“It was nothing but ideological tantrums led by Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and other cohorts whose sole purpose truly is to undermine and destroy government,” he said. “We need to stop sending folks to Washington who do not believe in the job they’re supposed to do.”

Ron LeachJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Ron Leach

As one of the founding members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, Paul pushed for initiatives to cut federal spending, limit government regulations and avoid foreign wars. He was the winner of the Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll three years in a row but over the course of 2015, his brand grew out of favor as the threat of terrorism at home and abroad grew.

Paul is facing two little-known challengers in the primary election — Lexington financial analyst James Gould and Louisville engineer Steve Slaughter.

Four other Democrats are running for the nomination but weren’t invited to Wednesday’s debate: Tom Recktenwald, a retired teacher from Louisville; Jeff Kender, a steelworker from Phelps; Rory Houlihan of Winchester and Grant Short of Owensboro.

The Kentucky Democratic Primary is May 17.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.