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Can an openly gay Democrat unseat Sen. Rand Paul? (+video)

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is Kentucky Democrats' best hope of beating the incumbent senator, presenting a stark choice to increasingly red-state Kentuckians. 

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    Lexington, Kentucky Mayor Jim Gray (c.) stands with family members and supporters as he announces his candidacy for the US Senate at the State Capitol on January 26. Mr. Gray, a Democrat, will challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who is also running for president.
    Timothy D. Easley/AP
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Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Ky., made a last-minute announcement of his candidacy for the US Senate on Tuesday, offering increasingly red-state Kentuckians a stark choice: a gay businessman whose American Dream rests on wages and job creation, or incumbent Rand Paul, who has become increasingly focused on his bid for the Republican nomination for president. 

Mayor Gray's decision also creates tough choices for Senator Paul, who has struggled to keep pace in the Republican presidential campaign. Recent polls show him with 6 percent of likely Iowan caucus voters' support, giving him fifth place out of twelve remaining candidates. Should he keep splitting time and money between two races simultaneously, or drop out of the nomination race to focus on his home turf?

"The American Dream is slipping away," Gray said in a video announcing his candidacy for the Senate. "People don't have the same opportunity we had growing up and instead of building things up like my family taught me, Washington is busy tearing each other down. I want to change that."

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Lexington first elected Gray in 2011, making him the state's first openly gay mayor. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the year Gray was first elected.] The former chief executive officer of Gray Construction, which he built up after his father's death when he was in college, spent $800,000 of his own money to win the mayoral office in 2010, and his ability to fund his own Senate campaign could help overcome the challenge of mounting a last-minute campaign. 

Kentucky Republicans describe Gray's eleventh-hour decision as a sign of weakness. Democrats had "finally convinced Jim Gray to take one for the team," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Greg Blair. The deadline to file a campaign was 4 o'clock Tuesday afternoon. 

In fact, state party leaders had hoped former auditor Adam Edelen could take on Rand's Senate seat. But Mr. Edelen was unexpectedly defeated in November, leaving the party without a main contender. Three other Democrats have filed, but Gray is viewed as the strongest candidate, with a record of creating jobs, attracting business, and raising the city's minimum wage to $10.10. 

Asked in an interview if he thought being gay could hurt his campaign, Gray told the Louisville Courier-Journal that Lexingtonians "care about character and they care about competence. And that, at the end of the day, is what I think this election will be about."

The announcement could worry Paul, whose lack of electable opponents allowed him to run for the Republican presidential nomination, although he has maintained a better Senate attendance record than many candidates. As of October, he'd missed only 1.1 percent of Senate votes, versus competing presidential candidates missing 20 to 26 percent. 

But momentum for Gray could persuade Paul to drop out of the national race and head home, as CNN reports. 

Meanwhile, the senator has tried to persuade Kentuckians that he's their best representative in Washington. 

"Washington has waged war on our Kentucky way of life my entire time in the Senate.  And I have stood up each and every time to fight for Kentucky," Paul wrote in a December 1 op-ed for the Courier-Journal, arguing that his "number one priority" was serving Kentucky. In D.C., he has supported bipartisan criminal justice reform, one of the White House's domestic priorities, but vigorously opposed a supposed "EPA War on Coal."

His contempt for the Obama administration appears to be popular in Kentucky, which has veered right during Obama's time in the White House, leaving some political observers puzzled over the formerly blue state's switched allegiance. Kentucky has some of the most welfare-dependent regions in the country, yet voters have elected politicians who rail against a "safety net" society.

The change may not be what voters think, but rather who's voting, as ProPublica's Alec MacGillis argued in a November op-ed for The New York Times. According to Mr. MacGillis, working class and poor white voters' participation rates have fallen dramatically, putting Kentucky in the lowest 10 states nationwide for voter turnout.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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