Kentucky Senate race looks set to boost the 'tea party,' Rand Paul

Rand Paul, the 'tea party' favorite, holds a double-digit lead in the Republican primary for Kentucky's Senate seat. The Democratic race is closer, but polls show either candidate would be more competitive against Paul than against his GOP opponent, Trey Grayson.

By , Staff writer

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    Kentucky Senate race: Republican US Senate candidate Rand Paul, a favorite of 'tea party' groups, prepared for a candidate forum in Lexington, Ky., Monday. Paul's opponents in the May 18 Republican primary, Gurley Martin (l.) and C.M. "Trey" Grayson (c.), are also pictured.
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In a primary season when the “tea party” movement has had mixed success, Kentucky looks set to give the antitax, small-government conservatives a big boost.

Polls show first-time politician – and libertarian-leaning tea-party favorite – Rand Paul with a solid double-digit lead in the Republican primary for Senate. That expected victory next Tuesday will deal an embarrassing blow to the top Republican in the US Senate, Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell, who had hand-picked state Secretary of State Trey Grayson to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R).

Under normal circumstances, Senator McConnell’s endorsement would have been good as gold. But these are not normal times.

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Though still popular with Kentucky Republicans, McConnell is as “establishment” as it gets, and voters are in a feisty, anti-establishment mood.

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The rise of Dr. Paul – an opthalmologist and son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas – has confounded Kentucky political observers and thrown a twist into general election calculations. Nonpartisan observers generally believe Mr. Grayson would be the stronger contender in November, and so the likely nomination of Paul may give the Democrats a shot at taking over this seat in a solidly red state.

As a libertarian, Paul holds some views outside the conservative mainstream – such as opposition to the Iraq war and support for legalized medical marijuana – but they have not been enough to dampen the enthusiasm of his supporters. For now, the Cook Political Report lists the general election race as a tossup.

Paul’s stunning rise has also overshadowed the Democratic primary, which has boiled down to a tight contest between Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway. A Research 2000 poll taken May 2-4 shows Mr. Mongiardo up by seven points, 39 percent to 32 percent.

But a more recent poll, by the automated SurveyUSA, shows Mongiardo up by just one point. Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst for Cook Political, says Mr. Conway has the momentum.

"Conway is better funded and has less baggage,” says Ms. Duffy, noting that Mongiardo receives a $30,000-per-year housing allowance but lives with his in-laws.

But the Democrats (like the Republicans) may end up nominating the weaker candidate for the general election.

Conway’s “base” is female, younger voters, and liberals, while Mongiardo’s is male, older voters, and more conservative.

“In the primary, the Conway-based electorate is stronger by a good factor than in the general,” says Danny Briscoe, a Democratic strategist in Louisville who is not affiliated with any Senate candidate. “In the general, you’d much prefer to have Mongiardo’s base.”

On Pollster.com, which averages polling data, trial heats for the general show Grayson doing better than Paul against either Democrat. The closest contest would pit Paul against Conway, currently at 42 percent to 39 percent. But after next Tuesday, when both parties have nominees, polling for the general will give a much better indication of voter sentiment.

In Washington, the Kentucky Senate race has hurt McConnell’s image as a wily political operator. And Senator Bunning’s endorsement of Paul has created a vision of discord in the state GOP.

“I imagine it’s going to make it more difficult for [McConnell] to lead the state Republicans,” says Steve Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

An additional insult to McConnell came when Paul refused to say whether he would vote for McConnell as the leader of the Senate Republicans, if he wins the seat.

“The fact that Paul was not hurt by refusing to endorse McConnell tells you something,” says Mr. Voss. McConnell is not up for reelection for another four years, but “people who are ambitious are still going to remember. At a minimum, he’ll get a stronger Democratic challenger than he would have otherwise.”

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