Though conventional wisdom says Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is the heavy favorite to win the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate this May, former Frankfort City Commissioner Sellus Wilder picked up the endorsement of grassroots progressive group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth this week — which Wilder says is one of the signs he should now be considered a “credible contender” for the Democratic nomination.
KFTC’s New Power PAC announced their endorsement of Wilder over the six other Democratic contenders in an email Monday, saying he “has a compelling vision for a healthy and prosperous Kentucky and is conducting an open and honest conversation with the voters.” KFTC Chairperson Dana Beasley Brown — whose organization has 10,000 dues-paying members — added that Wilder “shares KFTC’s commitment to a just economic transition in Eastern Kentucky” and “is a strong proponent of clean and affordable energy.”
Like KFTC, Wilder is not shying away from his support for environmental regulation of the coal industry, as well as investment in a new economic transition in eastern Kentucky — a rarity among statewide Democratic candidates. Wilder unapologetically advocated that position in a recent candidate forum at a community college in the heart of that region, referring to the “snake-oil myth” that “if we can just kill the EPA that our whole way of life is going to come roaring back.”
Noting that free market realities have played a larger role in the dramatic loss of coal jobs in Appalachia, Wilder added that the “war on coal” talking point used by both political parties in Kentucky is “really a shame, because they know that isn’t true, and they’re just playing to voters’ legitimate fears and desperation while not giving them any actual new opportunities or hopes to hold onto.”
In an interview with Insider Louisville, Wilder said he received positive feedback for his remarks at both that forum and a speech he recently gave to the United Mine Workers of America in Lexington, from people who respected his willingness to stray from the typical political talking points.
“A lot of people came up to me afterwards to tell me how refreshing it was to hear a candidate actually be straight with them,” said Wilder. “A lot of folks know that that’s true, that the state of the coal economy is a lot more complex than simply the ‘war on coal.’ There’s a real palpable sense that they’re not being offered legitimate opportunities in that area… But saying stuff like that is exactly why I’m even running, because we never really have honest conversations about that on a statewide level.”
The last two major statewide candidates who received the Democratic nomination — Alison Lundergan Grimes in the 2014 Senate race and Jack Conway in last year’s race for governor — both built their campaigns around attacking the regulations of the EPA and the Obama administration. Jim Gray so far has offered very little in the way of a policy platform and has not participated in candidate forums, but he told IL after filing for office in January that Obama’s power plan “has really caused eastern Kentucky to suffer.”
Wilder said he initially entered the Senate race thinking he could not win against Gray — who will have a large campaign spending advantage and built-in name identification — but would use the platform to begin such conversations around the state. However, Wilder now senses enough momentum that he considers himself “the credible alternative or contender to Gray,” noting not only his KFTC endorsement, but Democratic Louisville power donor Christy Brown holding a fundraiser for him at her house on Wednesday.
“It’s a long shot, I’m not naïve,” said Wilder. “Overcoming the millions that Jim (Gray) could put in is a hard road ahead, and I’m not going to come close to matching him in fundraising. But the fact that he hasn’t been campaigning or released a platform has actually given me a little room to claim some of that space… I became convinced pretty quickly that I will be able to compete, that I will be able to run a credible campaign. Enough folks are lining up behind me who have been waiting for a long time for somebody to try what I’m trying to do.”
Wilder said he will try to run a “lean campaign,” utilizing social media to make up for the short amount of time his campaign has to build support and the lack of a significant campaign war chest to flood the state with mailers and TV advertisements.
Despite Kentucky trending heavily rightward in recent elections, Wilder claims that if he is able to pull off an upset over Gray in the primary, he will have a better chance of beating presumptive Republican nominee Sen. Rand Paul in the general election. He says that large donations now going to Gray would be freed up to go toward himself, and he would provide “the better message and better vision” for voters.
“You can buy a primary with money alone, but that’s not going to fly in a general,” said Wilder. “You’ve got to have something to stand on… If Jim Gray is signaling his intention to run the same campaign that Alison and Jack did, I think it’s really foolish to think that’s magically going to succeed this time.”
Gray has not run an especially visible campaign since filing for office hours before the deadline to do so in January. His efforts have mostly consisted of emails touting his record of balancing budgets and creating jobs as the popular two-term mayor of Lexington and successful owner of Gray Construction. Those emails have consistently criticized bipartisan dysfunction in D.C., with one criticizing Republican senators for blocking a hearing for President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Asked to contrast himself on policy issues with Paul, Gray told IL in January that he would wait to lay out his policy platform, but he criticized Paul for proposing over $160 billion in cuts to military spending and being “a weak advocate for Israel.” He added Kentuckians have suffered from partisan fights in the nation’s capital, but he would “bring a voice of reason and a voice of moderation” to the Senate.
Wilder’s website lays out very specific and liberal policy positions, such as expanding Medicare to cover all Americans, breaking up “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions, legalizing and taxing marijuana, expanding the Clean Water Act to include fracking, strengthening union rights, lowering interest rates on student loans, and “modestly raising taxes on the wealthy.” He also takes a few policy stances that align with those of Paul, such as cutting the military budget and reducing mandatory minimum sentences.
While Christy Brown is holding a fundraising event in Louisville on Wednesday for Wilder, 21c owners Laura Lee Brown, Steve Wilson and Craig Greenberg are also holding a fundraiser for Gray at the hotel on the same night. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Gray two weeks ago, which could pitch in millions of dollars in television ads in the general election if he wins the primary.
Kentucky’s primary election is on May 17, when Democrats will also choose between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Wilder acknowledged that he supports Sanders for his emphasis on economic injustice and income inequality, but he hopes Democrats come together after the nominee is determined to defeat either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the general. Noting the unexpected success of both Sanders and Trump, Wilder adds that he is another outsider candidate who can prove the pundits wrong in this strange political climate.
“So conventional wisdom says you can’t run on the issues that I’m running on in Kentucky, but one thing we know for certain in this election cycle is that conventional wisdom has no clue what is even going on in the political sphere,” said Wilder. “Conventional wisdom said that Trump and Sanders didn’t stand a chance from Day 1, for example. They’re both more competitive than anyone thought they would be.”
Wilder and Gray face off against five other Democrats in the primary: 2014 congressional candidate Ron Leach of Brandenberg; Jeff Kender, of Phelps; Tom Recktenwald, of Louisville; Grant Short, of Owensboro; and Rory Houlihan, of Winchester.