Why did Rand Paul triumph so easily in the Kentucky GOP Senate primary? The Occam’s Razor answer is that he campaigned as an anti-establishment, libertarian-minded outsider and successfully painted his opponent, Trey Grayson, as the de facto incumbent in the race. The longer answer is, well, not that much longer.
Paul, an eye doctor and political novice, capitalized on pervasive disgust with Washington and struck the right chords on government spending. He won high-profile endorsements from Sarah Palin and Christian-evangelical activist James Dobson, which certainly helped. He also received generous financial backing from the tea-party movement. Grayson attempted to highlight some of Paul’s more unorthodox views — along with those of his father, Ron Paul, the Texas congressman made famous by his 2008 presidential bid — but he failed to sway a sufficient number of Bluegrass State Republicans.
“It’s hard to talk to voters who aren’t listening,” says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report. Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, didn’t necessarily run a poor campaign. Short of carpet-bombing Paul with more attack ads, says Duffy, there’s not much else he could have done. His biggest liability was the “establishment” label that Paul gleefully pinned on him. Grayson carried endorsements from several Republican heavyweights — including Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani, and Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate leader, who sought to play kingmaker — plus the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Right to Life.
Such endorsements are generally overrated. But Duffy reckons that the Palin and Dobson plugs gave Paul a significant boost. Dobson initially endorsed Grayson. Then, exactly one week later, on May 3, he switched his support to Paul, explaining that his original choice stemmed from “misleading information” about Paul’s position on abortion and other issues. “I now know that he is avidly pro-life,” Dobson declared in a statement. “He believes that life begins at conception. He opposes earmarking and supports Israel. He identifies with the tea-party movement and believes in home-schooling. Sounds like my kind of man.” Paul also snagged an endorsement from Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning, the retiring senator whose seat he is vying to fill.
While Democrats face an uphill battle against Paul, the general-election race will hardly be a slam dunk for Republicans. Kentucky may be conservative, but it’s not Utah. Democrats control both the state house of representatives and the governor’s mansion. Bunning, the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, barely squeaked through in his 2004 reelection campaign, winning by only 1.3 percentage points. And that was with the assistance of George W. Bush’s coattails. (Bush carried Kentucky by 20 points that year.) After getting reelected by 30 points in 2002, McConnell won by just 6 points in 2008.
Granted, Bunning’s popularity was weakened by his erratic behavior, 2008 was a dreadful year for Republicans across the board, and John McCain took the state by 16 points. Still, one recent survey found that McConnell’s approval rating among Kentucky voters has dropped to 41 percent. Paul’s lack of political experience may have appealed to tea-partiers in his contest with Grayson, but it could prove a hindrance against his Democratic opponent.
That opponent will be Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway, who won a narrow primary victory over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (the Democrat who nearly beat Bunning in 2004). Conway has the skills and financing to ensure a competitive race, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. If his staffers are hungry for ammunition to use against Paul, they need only harvest the materials compiled by Team Grayson. Paul has previously embraced some fairly extreme libertarian positions and made unnerving comments about national-security issues, though he has tried to cut a less radical figure on the campaign trail.
As of Tuesday night, the latest RealClearPolitics polling average showed Paul leading Conway by 4.3 percentage points. They are contending for one of the few GOP Senate seats that Democrats have a chance of flipping in 2010. “Paul is a giant roll of the dice for Republicans,” says Sabato. “I can see him winning a landslide — but I can also see him blowing it.”
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.