Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates differed sharply on federal farm policies Thursday, offering the most substantive policy discussion of the campaign in a race that so far has focused more on Rand Paul's presidential aspirations and Jim Gray's tenure as mayor of the state's second-largest city.
Paul and Gray both took questions from the Kentucky Farm Bureau board of directors, but in separate interviews about an hour apart. It was a change from recent years when the state's largest farming organization would question candidates directly, highlighting how Paul and Gray have yet to debate each other with a just over two months remaining before the general election.
"Where is he? I thought he was going to be here," Paul, the Republican incumbent, joked when asked by reporters why he did not appear with Gray directly. "I just hear it was the way it was set up. I showed up and answer my questions."
Gray, the Democratic mayor of Lexington, said Paul was "unwilling to appear at the same time," a claim Paul disputed.
Paul told the board he supports federal crop insurance. But Paul did not say, when asked directly, if he would support the next federal farm bill that governs most of the country's agriculture spending. Paul voted against the farm bill in 2014, saying it was too expensive.
Gray said he would support the next federal farm bill, and he said Paul was "not a friend of the farmer" for voting against the 2014 bill.
But Paul did say he would work to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency's rule on waterways and wetlands, saying it was part of his plan to "take power back from the executive branch."
"I'm going to do everything I can to stop the regulatory overreach," Paul said.
Gray did not answer the question in his comments to the board, but told reporters afterward he would not support repealing the rule.
"From my point of view the government shouldn't be railed against all the time," Gray said. "I suspect all of you too agree that some level of regulatory influence is appropriate. Too much of it is a bad thing."
The candidates agreed on some things, including reforming the immigration program for temporary agriculture workers so that farmers would have an easier time hiring laborers. Gray said the program needs to be "improved" but did not offer details. Paul said he would work to give workers multiyear visas to make it easier for farmers to hire them.
"You'll have less illegal immigration if you have more legal immigration," Paul said.
Paul did not mention Gray in his remarks before to the Farm Bureau, a nonpartisan group that does not endorse candidates or contribute to political campaigns. But Gray took several swipes at Paul, calling him "one of the most partisan and ineffective senators in a place that gets very little done."
"I believe Kentuckians deserve more: a senator who will always put Kentucky first," Gray said.
Gray told the board he was not a farmer and he was "open to learning" about the issues. He answered some questions by offering that he would work to bring people together to reach compromise on the issues, something he says Paul is unwilling to do.
Paul briefly dove into politics when discussing immigration reform, blaming Democrats for being unwilling to compromise. And he said the only way Congress would amend the constitution to require Congress pass a balanced budget is if people "get angry enough to get out and vote for people that will vote for it."
"You have to have more of a groundswell of people who will actually do what they say when they are elected," he said.