By Jack Brammer – firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT — Many conservative Republicans concede that Secretary of State Trey Grayson is their party’s likely nominee in Kentucky’s 2010 U.S. Senate race now that incumbent Sen. Jim Bunning has quit the contest, but the thought makes them uneasy.
Some Republicans in the state wonder whether the former Democrat — Grayson voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 — is a true conservative who is tough enough to withstand an intense statewide race that will garner national attention.
“I hope the GOP doesn’t nominate another Arlen Specter as its 2010 nominee?” State Rep. Jamie Comer of Tompkinsville said on his Facebook page Monday night after Bunning decided not to seek a third term and Grayson said he will formally enter the race.
Specter is the longtime Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who defected to the Democratic Party last April.
Comer said in an interview Tuesday that he had no Kentucky candidate in mind when he wrote the Specter line.
“I was just saying that I don’t want a candidate who says one thing in Northern Kentucky and says something else in Monroe County,” Comer said.
Comer said he thinks Grayson, 37, of Richwood in Boone County, is the party’s frontrunner, “but a lot of people don’t know where he stands on the issues.
“He needs to do a better job in defining his ideology. We know he’s a smart, honest, good guy. We want to know where he stands on the issues and if he will stand by them whatever comes along.”
That’s what Jim Bunning did, he said.
Republican political consultant Ted Jackson of Louisville agreed that Grayson has something to prove to conservative Republicans.
“I like his odds of being the Republican nominee next year but, to my knowledge, Trey has never been in a bare-knuckle campaign,” Jackson said.
“It remains to be seen how he reacts and performs in the heat of battle,” he said. “He doesn’t like conflict like some politicians but I think he will rise to the occasion.”
Jackson said Attorney General Jack Conway of Louisville, who some consider the front-runner in next year’s Democratic primary election for the U.S. Senate, may have an upper hand on Grayson in “toughness on the campaign trail.”
“Conway was involved in a tough, mean-spirited race for Congress, which he almost won,” Jackson said, referring to Conway’s 2002 race against Republican Anne Northup in Louisville.
The 2010 Senate race likely will take on a more savage tone, said Scott Jennings, a veteran of several Kentucky political campaigns and a former adviser to President George W. Bush.
Jennings said the contest will be one of the top three targeted races in the nation next year. “Democrats will a pour a lot of money into it,” he said.
Although Grayson’s past support of Clinton may help him in a general election, it provides his GOP primary opponents fodder for attack.
Grayson told students and community leaders at the University of Kentucky last September that he first registered as a Democrat but changed to a Republican when he realized he agreed more often with the GOP on issues.
He also acknowledged that he voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 when he cast his first presidential ballot.
Others eyeing the Republican primary are Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul, son of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; Cathy Bailey, a former U.S. ambassador to Latvia; and Bill Johnson, a Todd County Navy veteran and businessman.
Republicans should not worry about Grayson’s political mettle, said Kevin Broghamer, a spokesman for Grayson’s exploratory committee.
“Secretary Grayson has faced political challenges, both while in office and during campaigns, and demonstrated that he is ready for the challenge,” Broghamer said.
Grayson “faced the most daunting political environment for Republicans in decades” in his 2007 re-election bid for secretary of state but won by 14 percentage points, he said.
During that campaign, Grayson and incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, also seeking re-election, became the first Kentucky Republicans to win statewide office in an election won by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1915.
Grayson “withstood unfounded attacks and gutter politics from the Democratic Party,” Broghamer said.
Walter Baker, a former Republican state senator and Supreme Court justice from Glasgow, says Grayson can fill the bill for the GOP and Kentucky in the U.S. Senate.
“He’s well-known, has been elected statewide with bipartisan support and has done an excellent job as secretary of state,” Baker said.
“I would put him in the category of (late U.S. senators from Kentucky) John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton. He is a gentleman who is consistent on his views and ready and willing to stand up for them.”
Rep. Stan Lee, a Lexington Republican who is considered one of Kentucky’s most conservative legislators, said it’s unfair to question Grayson’s toughness.
“You find out about that when someone is in the office,” Lee said. “Trey has been a fine secretary of state. He has the potential to be a fine U.S. senator.
“I think he knows very well that politics is a tough deal.”