The Trump Effect and the Senate- Part 2: Kentucky

On the Republican side, most of the intrigue involved Rand Paul and his presidential aspirations.  At one time he actually was a viable candidate for the presidency, but things seriously unraveled.  Prior to that, believing his chances were better in a caucus format, the state legislature changed their law and allowed it after the Paul campaign put up $250,000 to help finance the caucuses.  However, Paul withdrew from the presidential race before the March 7th caucuses.  Donald Trump managed to eke out a victory over Ted Cruz by less than 5,000 votes of over 230,000 cast.

When Rand Paul’s stock began to drop in the presidential race, some Kentucky Republicans were grumbling that he should concentrate on his Senate seat.  Obviously, he heeded that advice.  In the resulting May 17th primary, he handily defeated two opponents.

On the Democratic side, they entered the race reeling from losses in the November, 2015 election.  They saw the GOP take four out of six statewide offices including Governor.  Most polls had that race a dead heat heading into Election Day, but Matt Bevin defeated his Democratic opponent Jack Conway by 9 percentage points.  He succeeded Democratic Governor Steve Beshear.  Conway himself had survived a very close primary that year against James Comer.  Faced with these losses, the Democrats were hard pressed to field a strong candidate.  Further, the Bevin margin of victory was the largest for a Republican since the Civil War.

Eventually, Jim Gray- the openly gay mayor of Lexington- entered the race while Paul was still a presidential candidate.  Gray is certainly known in the Lexington area and its suburbs, but has little name recognition statewide.   Conversely, Rand Paul enjoys good approval ratings statewide.

Gray was a wealthy construction business CEO before becoming mayor in 2010.  In that year, he spent over $800,000 of his own money to win the race by slightly more than 5,000 votes over his GOP incumbent rival Jim Newberry.  While mayor, he tackled the city’s public pension fund problems allegedly saving the city $60 million.  He also increased the city’s minimum wage to $10.10/hour.  In 2014, he easily won reelection with 65% of the vote becoming the first incumbent mayor to be reelected in 16 years.  For this race, he dumped $250,000 of his own money into it.

Democrats are hopeful that Gray can run a good campaign against Rand Paul in November.  In addition to being rich and unafraid to use his own money to win political office, he is also seen as politically savvy.  Thus far, he has not staked out any controversial positions and has stuck to generalities.

As mentioned earlier, Trump won the Kentucky caucuses by a rather slim margin over Ted Cruz.  In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton likewise won a very narrow victory over Bernie Sanders on May 17th.  This could portend problems for Clinton in November at the top of the ticket.  That is balanced by the fact that support for Trump on the GOP was not particularly overwhelming.

Although Kentucky can certainly be classified as a red state, it is a sneaky one.  At the national office level, they behave like a red state. The only times they voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1960, that person was a Southerner (Johnson in ’64, Carter in ’76, and Clinton in ’92 and ’96).  But, they have a history of electing Democratic Governors including a string of them from 1974 to 2003.  Furthermore, their lower house in the legislature is controlled by the Democrats- the only legislative chamber in the South that can make that claim.  Hence, there is potential for a close presidential race.

Except for Jefferson County which includes Louisville and Fayette County, which includes Lexington, Kentucky is a rural state and conservative and votes Republican.  One can expect Gray to take his home base county and Clinton will likely take these two counties also.  It is doubtful that success can translate elsewhere in the state.  This writer’s only concern (and it is minor) is that despite winning the state, Trump support is less than enthusiastic.  Still, even if Clinton was to take the state, Kentucky voters actually do split their ticket.  Coupled with Paul’s relatively good approval ratings among Kentucky voters, that should be enough to continue these trends and propel Rand Paul back for another term in the Senate.  A Senate seat loss in Kentucky would foretell horrible losses for the GOP on Election night.