McConnell Shapes Kentucky Race

Sensing momentum from strong fundraising and polling that showed him ahead in the 2010 Kentucky Republican Senate primary, ophthalmologist Rand Paul recently tried to make the case that the GOP establishment was wavering in its support of his opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

But that spin has bumped up against the reality that the Republican political establishment in Kentucky is essentially one man: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And, as one Kentucky Republican insider said Monday, “any objective observer knows who Mitch McConnell is supporting— in the GOP race.

That could make Paul’s uphill campaign all the more daunting.

Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is running as a political outsider who is proud of the fact that he’s not a career politician. But to win the GOP nomination, he will need the support of the same Kentucky Republicans who worked hard to get McConnell elected to a fifth term in 2008. And it might have been those primary voters whom Paul was trying to appeal to when he tried to make the case that the establishment was wavering on Grayson.

Grayson was a teenager when he first met McConnell, and the Minority Leader has become a political mentor who helped Grayson become a rising star in the Bluegrass State. Grayson’s top campaign advisers are almost exclusively former McConnell operatives, and McConnell has worked behind the scenes as a key fundraiser for Grayson.

And as McConnell goes, so goes the national party.

GOP strategists have said that with the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s focus on so many other races around the country and McConnell’s knowledge and leadership in Kentucky, the committee has generally deferred to the Minority Leader when it comes to the Kentucky political landscape. But the NRSC became an issue in the race over the Thanksgiving holiday.

On Monday, Paul’s campaign was continuing to deal with the fallout of a miscommunication with the NRSC over whether the committee would endorse in the primary.

Following a phone conversation with the NRSC’s political director last week, Paul told state and national reporters that the committee had decided to stay on the sidelines completely.

Paul attributed the decision to his campaign’s fundraising success — he has raised $1.4 million to date and outraised Grayson in the second quarter — and the fact that a recent SurveyUSA poll showed Paul leading by 3 points in the primary.

NRSC officials quickly disputed Paul’s characterization of the conversation and reasserted their right to endorse in the race.

The tension between Paul’s camp and the NRSC was still evident Monday afternoon.

“When we have something we think is newsworthy, we’re going to pass it along,— Paul spokesman David Adams said of why Paul made his public declaration last week. “Are people going to change their mind and change their tune? Sure, that’s the rough and tumble of a political campaign.—

Adams went on to dismiss the importance of the NRSC when it comes to picking the GOP nominee.

“Kentucky voters are not going to make their decisions based on what the NRSC says,— he said.

NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh agreed that the Kentucky voters would be the ones to decide the primary race but added that “it’s certainly odd that the Paul campaign would discount the NRSC’s influence but yet would go out of their way to mislead folks about a conversation they had with our organization last week.—

This cycle the committee’s ability to make a difference in the race will be limited to an extent by NRSC Chairman John Cornyn’s (Texas) pledge not to spend money in contested primaries. But the committee can assert its influence in other ways, including fundraising help. And sure enough the NRSC and Grayson have already formed a joint fundraising committee for an upcoming event.

Last week’s dust-up with the NRSC comes on the heels of another incident where Paul declined to say whether he would support McConnell as leader if he were elected.

It was a statement that Grayson’s camp continues to view as a misstep in Kentucky, where recent polling showed McConnell with a 69 percent job-approval rating among Republicans.

“We are confident that Secretary Grayson’s views more closely match those of Kentucky Republican primary voters than the views of our opponents,— Grayson spokesman Nate Hodson said Monday. Paul has “refused to say whether he would support Sen. Mitch McConnell to continue as GOP Leader if he’s elected — a no-brainer for any serious Kentucky Republican.—

But it may take another month and a half before it can truly be determined how big of an issue McConnell and the NRSC will be in the primary.

“I truly believe the tale of the tape on this race will be on Jan. [31] when the [fourth-quarter] fundraising reports come out,— said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky political operative who previously worked for McConnell’s re-election campaign. “If the Paul people have not been able capitalize on him leading in a survey, then I think that might be indicative that he might have peaked. But if [Federal Election Commission] reports come out and Paul has again led all the Senate candidates in fundraising, then I think a lot of these fumbles sort of go away.—

Jennings added that it will also be interesting to see whether Grayson “can take some of these fumbles and generate his own fundraising off them.—

Those fundraising reports are set to be released just five days after Kentucky’s filing deadline. But there could be a buzz about the candidates’ financial strength ahead of time, and any weakness on the fundraising front from either of the leading Republicans could be an added incentive for wealthy businesswoman and former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Cathy Bailey, who is rumored to still be considering a Senate bid.