BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Rand Paul, the first-time candidate for elective office who has emerged as a symbol of the national tea party’s clout in Republican politics, appears to have clinched the GOP’s nomination for this state’s open Senate seat – in a victory certain to jolt the political order in Kentucky and across the country.
The 47-year-old Bowling Green ophthalmologist – who until last year was best known for being the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose staunch libertarian views have spawned a national grassroots following – knocked off Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state who had been the favorite of this state’s political heavyweights, most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back,” Paul, with his parents and the rest of his family by his side, declared to roaring supporters at a posh country club here in his hometown.
With his attention-grabbing views railing on Washington and its ballooning budget deficits, the fire-breathing Paul successfully connected with this state’s furious Republican primary voters, something that the more subdued Grayson was unable to accomplish in the fight to replace the retiring two-term Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).
“The electorate is pissed,” said Mike Shea, a long-time political adviser to McConnell. “Rand did a really good job of tapping into those themes and tapping into that anger. Trey is a nice guy, but in his commercials and everything else, he seemed completely unable to generate any kind of dialogue to indicate he was tapping into that. If you meet him, he didn’t seem like he was angry.”
With 89 percent of the precincts reporting, Paul appeared poised to seize a huge victory – leading Grayson by 59 percent to 35 percent of the vote. The Associated Press projected that Paul would win the race.
A packed crowd here at the Bowling Green Country Club let out a loud cheer when the AP projected the race for Paul, who was expected to address some 100 activists here later Tuesday.
But many of the Paul supporters had expected nothing less than resounding victory.
“I kind of expected it actually,” said Brent Young, a 45-year-old tea party activist who works with a local firm researching swine production. “I’ve really been a big supporter of his dad, and I really hope he can be elected in November. Time will tell but we really do think he’s a different kind of politician – and hopefully send a message to the GOP that we want something different.”
Paul is expected to face either Lt. Gov Daniel Mongiardo or state Attorney General Jack Conway, who are in the middle of a neck-and-neck battle for the Democratic nomination. Conway’s views are more in line with the Democratic base’s positions, and he is seen by national Democrats as a safer choice. But Mongiardo is seen as more unpredictable on the campaign trail, though his conservative views that break with the White House could appeal to rural and right-leaning voters. Conway is leading the race in early returns.
While polls showed Paul building a comfortable lead in the final weeks of the primary campaign, his win is still poised to send a shockwave threw the Republican establishment. It’s the first clear statewide victory by the disparate national tea party movement, which propelled his victory based on his calls for radical reforms to Washington, including imposing term limits on senators, mandating Congress be more sensitive to its constitutional prerogatives, constitutionally mandate Congress to balance its budget and force all legislation to directly apply to lawmakers. Absent from Paul’s campaign was much focus on socially conservative and national security views that have generated enthusiasm among tea party supporters in other states.
Conway was leading the race by just two percentage points with 92 percent of the precincts reporting.
“It’s not a real good time for any individual to be in a political position,” Republican state Sen. Carroll Gibson said simply.
Tuesday’s voting turnout appeared lighter than usual in much of the state, due to inclement weather and a lack of a presidential contest this midterm season. The day was colored by allegations from the Grayson camp that Paul’s supporters had been intimidating voters outside polling stations and had improperly sought to verify that voting machines were properly being used, allegations Paul firmly rejected.
Paul appears to have his work cut out for him uniting a divided GOP electorate here. A Public Policy Polling memo issued Tuesday found that 53 percent of likely Grayson voters had an unfavorable view of Paul, and 43 percent said firmly they would not vote for the tea party-favorite.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Paul said nothing about Grayson and declined to extend an olive branch to his opponent’s supporters. Instead, he launched a fierce attack on President Barack Obama, accusing him of “apologizing” to the dictators and running the country towards socialism.
Beyond that, he’ll have to face a newly energized Democratic Party, which views his victory as a bright spot in an otherwise dim election year since it puts the Republican-held seat immediately in play. Already, Democrats are planning to pounce on a number of Paul’s more politically controversial views, including his calls to eliminate the Education Department, severely cut agriculture subsidies to farmers here and his advocacy for increasing the age for Social Security eligibility.
“Sometimes people run primaries different than they run general elections,” Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told POLITICO when asked if he were concerned that Paul’s views would make him unelectable in a general election. “We’ll see what happens.”
But Paul said he will not “weave and dodge” from the tea party’s message, and he insisted that he will not moderate in the general election.
Grayson, 38, had been viewed as a rising star in the state’s Republican Party. Young, telegenic and seen as a pragmatic-minded conservative, he is one of only five living Republicans to win statewide here, where a majority of voters are either Democratic or independent. With the quiet backing of McConnell for months, Grayson was seen as the heir apparent to Bunning’s seat.
But in the final hours of the campaign that slipped away from him, Grayson’s allies began looking back at what went wrong – and the explanations ranged from failing to account for Paul’s rise early enough, a subpar advertising campaign and a failure to effectively communicate fiscal views to the electorate.
“It seemed to me that he got off to a slow start,” said state Sen. Tom Jensen, a Republican who backed Grayson. “We never really picked up the momentum. It seemed like Rand Paul had the momentum from the beginning and just didn’t lose it. They ran a good campaign.”
And several people here said Grayson failed to push back against the notion that he was the establishment choice, a politically toxic label this election year that he could have more forcefully sought to affix to his opponent.
“He accepted the mantle of being the ‘Washington D.C.’ candidate despite Paul’s obvious ties to his father, and he ceded ground on key fiscal arguments,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist based in Louisville. “Grayson wanted this primary to be about national security because that’s where they thought they had the best opposition research. But this race was about spending and fiscal issues from the beginning, and Grayson’s lack of focus on that cost him early momentum which he never regained.”
As late as Monday, Grayson had complained that he couldn’t get traction on what he considered a key Paul gaffe: that a nuclear-free Iran wouldn’t be detrimental to national security. Paul had responded with a television ad calling Iran a threat, and the tit-for-tat never quite resonated with voters.
“We ran an ad and a quote from him saying that – I don’t know what else we could have done,” Grayson said. “On an issues discussion level, I’m not sure what more we could have done.”
In addition, Paul has positions that stray from the conservative line, including his hesitation over building a fence along the southern border with Mexico and for endorsing a federal ban on same-sex marriage; such positions didn’t seem to resonate with GOP primary voters in an election-year with many concerned about the budget deficit.
And Paul seemed to squash any momentum that Grayson seemed to muster. Last month, for instance, Bunning – who has a strong base of support in the conservative northern part of the state – grabbed headlines when he endorsed Paul, just a day after a new poll found the race tightening.
“I was very surprised because he had said to me straight up that he was going to stay out of the race,” Grayson told POLITICO about Bunning’s decision. “I was surprised. Based upon the things he said to me, I couldn’t reconcile that with what his actions were a month or so ago.”
But Paul benefitted greatly from his name identification as result of his father’s quixotic presidential run for the 2008 GOP nomination that spawned a buoyant band of libertarian followers. And he seemed to be doing something Grayson did not: speak directly to the mood of Republican primary voters angry at President Barack Obama’s agenda – and that anger seems to have cost Grayson his bid for the nomination.
“Obama is the best thing to happen the Republicans, but also the worst thing to happen to some Republican [politicians],” said Todd Inman, a Republican Party activist who supported Grayson.
But Paul credited a “nationwide movement” that helped him win his primary.
“What I say to Washington is, ‘Watch out, here we come.”