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Kentucky Democrats Reassess Race Against Rand Paul

If his presidential bid is unsuccessful, Paul is expected to run for re-election next year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
If his presidential bid is unsuccessful, Paul is expected to run for re-election next year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Only one Democrat represents Kentucky in the House, and not since 1998 has the state been represented by one in the Senate. Still, the party thought it could run a competitive race for the Senate seat next year.  

But after big losses in Tuesday’s elections, hopes for challenging Republicans in next year’s Senate race are suddenly dimmer.  Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s auditor of public accounts, had been viewed as  a possible candidate in that race. That was until he lost his re-election bid in an upset Tuesday.  

Al Cross, a longtime political writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal who now teaches journalism at the University of Kentucky, said Edelen “is clearly one of the most talented politicians” looking at the race, but added that the party’s losses Tuesday make the race much more challenging.  

Combined with the loss of the governor’s mansion to Republican businessman Matt Bevin, Cross said Tuesday evening the election was a “real signal that Kentucky has turned red at the state level like it has at the federal level.”  

With Edelen potentially damaged by his loss, some Kentucky Democrats said Greg Fischer, the wealthy mayor of Louisville who was re-elected in the state’s largest city last year, might give the race a look instead.  

Prior to Election Day, both Democrats and some Republicans privately said incumbent Sen. Rand Paul may have been hurting himself by neglecting his re-election effort and instead spending time focusing on his long-shot campaign for the presidency.

Cross said the presidential campaign made Paul vulnerable and that Democrats’ plan had been “to beat the hell out of him for not making up his mind” if Paul does opt for a re-election bid. Earlier this year, Paul convinced the state party to allow him to change the date for a Senate primary so it wouldn’t coincide with the presidential primary. Kentucky does not allow a candidate’s name to appear twice on the same ballot.

Edelen, who was elected auditor in 2011 with 55 percent of the vote, attracted attention earlier when he gave a speech that rocked the annual Fancy Farm Picnic this year, an annual bipartisan cattle call of the Kentucky political class.

Dale Emmons, a Kentucky Democratic strategist, said any Democrat who runs for the Senate seat would need to have “a really focused and smart campaign,” regardless of what happens with the presidential race, but stressed Tuesday evening that his party’s big losses make that much harder.

Even before their victories, Republicans were readying to make another play for seats in the state House, one of the last southern state legislatures dominated by Democrats. During his election night remarks, Bevin led a chant of “flip the House,” the Republican Party of Kentucky’s new rallying cry heading in to 2016.

Emmons said the competitive races for the House in the 6th District against Republican Rep. Andy Barr and for the 1st District seat being vacated by Rep. Edward Whitfield could provide energy to Democrats.

Until Bevin’s victory, with the exception of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican who served one term from 2003 to 2007, Kentucky Democrats had held a solid grip on governor and most statewide offices since the 1970s.

“We have a rich tradition of Democrats winning state elections in Kentucky because Kentucky Democrats are of a different stripe than federal Democrats,” said Emmons, who assisted Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign against Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014 and led the campaign for his opponent in 2008.

But, as they did this year with television commercials tying Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway with President Barack Obama, who has high unpopularity in the state (he lost to Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008 by 16 points and Mitt Romney by 22 points in 2012), Republicans have been able to nationalize races in Kentucky in ways they had not been able to before.

“Obama’s been very bad for the Democratic brand in this state,” said Cross, which he said was made clear by Republicans featuring the president in most of the messaging against Conway this year.

Cross said the governor’s race “probably won’t be the last Obama war.”


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