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Gray wins Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. Rand Paul

May 18, 2016 GMT
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, right, exits the voting machine at the Hampton Court precinct at Harrison Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate.  Gray has won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky to set up a fall campaign against Republican Sen. Rand Paul.  (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, right, exits the voting machine at the Hampton Court precinct at Harrison Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate.  Gray has won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky to set up a fall campaign against Republican Sen. Rand Paul.  (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, right, exits the voting machine at the Hampton Court precinct at Harrison Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate.  Gray has won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky to set up a fall campaign against Republican Sen. Rand Paul.  (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, right, exits the voting machine at the Hampton Court precinct at Harrison Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate. Gray has won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky to set up a fall campaign against Republican Sen. Rand Paul. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, right, exits the voting machine at the Hampton Court precinct at Harrison Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Gray, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate. Gray has won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky to set up a fall campaign against Republican Sen. Rand Paul. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Tuesday claimed the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky, giving his struggling party a wealthy candidate with a business pedigree to take on first-term Republican Sen. Rand Paul in a state trending toward the GOP.

Gray touted his city hall experience and background in helping build his family’s successful construction company. Gray defeated six underfunded opponents in the Democratic primary.

Paul easily defeated his two Republican challengers, James Gould and Steve Slaughter, taking a successful first step in putting his failed presidential campaign behind him.

In a feisty speech in his home base of Lexington, Gray portrayed the libertarian-leaning Paul as someone “way outside the mainstream” who is “big on talk and little on action.”

He also jabbed at Paul’s overlapping runs for the presidency and re-election to Senate.

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“Can anyone name one thing that Sen. Paul has accomplished?” Gray asked the partisan crowd Tuesday night. “There is one thing, he changed the rules of course so he could run for Senate and president at the same time. Now you have got my word, I am never running for president. I am running to be Kentucky’s United States senator.”

Paul sounded comfortable running on the conservative issues that got him to the Senate in the first place in 2010 — a limited-government platform, defense of individual liberties and support for Kentucky’s sagging coal industry. Paul ended his presidential campaign early in the year.

He also looks ready to recycle an effective strategy for other Kentucky Republicans by trying to tie Gray to national Democrats — namely President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton — especially on coal-related environmental policies.

“It will be very, very difficult for any Democrat to run in Kentucky because ... it’s virtually your patriotic duty to vote against Hillary Clinton,” Paul said in an interview Tuesday.

He cited Clinton’s earlier comments that Republicans pounced on as an attack on coal. Clinton later called the comment a “misstatement.”

Gray’s campaign is groundbreaking for another reason: he is an openly gay candidate in a state where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis became a symbol of opposition to same-sex marriages.

Bob Mattingly, 81, said he voted for Gray because of his business experience.

“He’s more of a businessman than a politician,” Mattingly said after casting his vote in Lebanon, Kentucky. “We need more statesmen than we do politicians.”

Mattingly said he didn’t have any problem supporting a gay candidate. “A lot of times those people are more in tune with helping people that are downtrodden,” he said.

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Gray raised nearly $1.9 million since entering the Senate race in late January, bolstered by $1 million he loaned his campaign. Leading up to the primary, Gray sidestepped questions about how much he would invest in the campaign, saying: “I intend to have the resources to run an effective campaign.” He had nearly $1.1 million cash on hand, putting him only slightly behind Paul, who had nearly $1.4 million on hand, according to campaign finance reports.

During the low-key primary, Gray looked past his Democratic foes and set his sights on Paul, accusing the Republican of being preoccupied by his failed run for the White House.

Paul countered that he maintained a 96 percent attendance record for Senate votes, helped sponsor more than 100 bills and offered more than 300 amendments to bills during his term.

“I think it will be a difficult sell to try to convince people I’m not doing my job,” Paul said in the phone interview on Tuesday.

The race for the Democratic Senate nomination included Gray; Sellus Wilder, a liberal filmmaker inspired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and military veteran Ron Leach, who served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other Democratic candidates were Tom Recktenwald, Jeff Kender, Rory Houlihan and Grant Short.

Unofficial, incomplete returns showed Gray with 59 percent of the vote, leading his closest opponent, Wilder, by more than 180,000 votes. Paul had 85 percent of the vote.

Kentucky Democrats haven’t won a U.S. Senate election since 1992.

Last November, Republicans solidified their political power in Kentucky by winning all but two statewide constitutional offices, including governor.

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Associated Press Writers Dylan Lovan in Louisville and Adam Beam in Lebanon, Kentucky, contributed to this report.