Kentucky Battle Tests Old GOP Home

Posted April 16, 2010 at 6:04pm

LEBANON, Ky. — The differences between the two Republican Senate candidates start at their shoes and move up from there.

At last week’s Lincoln Day Dinner in this small town located about three miles from the geographic center of the Bluegrass State, Secretary of State Trey Grayson wore polished black wingtips. Formal and sensible, they are the kind of standard footwear one might expect to see on a state official or any other politician.

Rand Paul, Grayson’s primary opponent, showed up at the Oak Barrel restaurant wearing a pair of well-used brown lace-ups that more closely resembled bowling shoes than anything one might see in the halls of Frankfort or the U.S. Capitol.

The few times they stood next to each other, Paul’s size 8s were dwarfed by Grayson’s size 13s. The shoe sizes only amplified the two men’s other physical differences — the secretary of state has a towering frame and sharp haircut while the much shorter eye surgeon from Bowling Green sports a mop of wavy hair that never seems to be completely in place.

But while Grayson certainly looks the part of a Senate candidate more than the third child of Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R) does, he’s suddenly found himself in the fight of his young political career. With one month to go before the May 18 primary, public polling on the contest seems to indicate Grayson is having trouble closing a 15-point gap against Paul. Grayson’s camp continues to argue that its internal polling shows the race to be a dead heat, but even if that is true it would still mean Paul has run one of the most surprising campaigns of the 2010 cycle.

‘A Party Hack’

[IMGCAP(1)]Dick and Sondra Gwinn came to the Marion County Lincoln Day Dinner in Lebanon still undecided about whom to vote for in the Senate primary. The two self-described Glenn Beck enthusiasts said they came to the gathering of 60 or so local Republicans in the hopes of getting a better understanding of the two men.

“I came in here tonight wanting to vote for Trey Grayson, but I changed my mind a bit,” Dick Gwinn said after the event. “He sounded to me like a party hack.”

Grayson is a former corporate attorney whose first run for political office was in 2003, when he was elected as the youngest secretary of state in the nation. He was re-elected in 2007. Coming off that victory, Grayson could count two statewide elections under his belt before he was 36, and he was a bona fide rising star in Kentucky.

So when questions began to spring up in late 2008 over whether Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) could win re-election in 2010, Grayson was a natural successor in the eyes of the state’s GOP establishment. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who waged a very public battle last spring with Bunning to get him to step aside, has supported Grayson behind the scenes and has given him fundraising help. Grayson is also making use of several key McConnell operatives in his campaign, including his pollster.

Bunning, meanwhile, in a final parting shot at McConnell, came out publicly for Paul last week.

Despite losing Bunning, Grayson continues to be seen as the establishment candidate in the race. Gwinn’s assessment of the secretary of state was repeated at various political events across Kentucky last week, and never more strongly than by those who count themselves as part of the tea party movement.

“This is the new blood,” said Roy Tudor as he pointed to Paul. Tudor, who was still wearing his UPS uniform after driving directly to a Lexington tea party rally after work on Thursday, then motioned over his shoulder as if to indicate Grayson, who at that moment was appearing at a local Chamber of Commerce dinner about 60 miles south of Lexington.

“That’s old blood,” he said.

Paul doesn’t mind playing up the outsider image.

This race “is being seen as a national referendum” on the tea party movement, he said at a rally in Louisville that drew hundreds of supporters sporting “I’m a Rand Fan” stickers. “If we win, it will be the biggest tea party victory in the country.”

‘Strange Ideas’

Grayson supporters are particularly irritated by the notion that Paul is somehow a creation of the tea party movement.

“I came so people would know that everyone here is not for Rand Paul,” said Terry Miller, a maintenance worker for a local hospital who attended the Louisville tea party rally. Miller carried one of the few Trey Grayson signs that was visible outside the booth set up by the secretary of state’s campaign.

“I don’t care for his father and I don’t have a good feeling about” Rand Paul, he said.

Grayson’s camp has argued that Paul built his campaign on the national network created by Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid and that Paul is the true “insider” in the race as the son of an 11th-term Congressman. But those arguments haven’t seemed to stick.

More recently, Grayson’s campaign has tried to play on Paul’s somewhat quirky personality traits to amplify what they describe as his “strange ideas.” Grayson even set up a Web page, randpaulstrangeideas.com, which
attacks Paul for being out of touch with the majority of Kentucky Republicans on
everything from national defense to abortion.

The success or failure of those efforts will be seen on primary day. But as Paul walked away after introducing himself to a table of well-dressed members at a meeting of the Women’s Republican Club of Louisville and Jefferson County last week, one of the ladies said simply, “He didn’t seem strange.”

Paul said last week that Grayson missed his chance to make his attacks stick by ignoring Paul until it was too late in the primary.

“We defined the race before he even got started. We’ve had the race defined as conservative versus … moderate for nine months now,” Paul said. “He didn’t even campaign the first six months. … I think in the first six months of the campaign, he felt like he might have been anointed and had a right to the office.”

Some insiders said there may have been a good reason Grayson’s strongest attacks came well after Paul entered the race last year. Grayson may have been worried about scaring Paul out of the primary and into running as an Independent. In a battleground Senate race, an Independent bid by a well-known conservative would have effectively killed the GOP’s chances in the general election. And so Grayson may have had to temper his early attacks until after filing deadlines passed.

Paul’s campaign manager said last week that over the final month of the campaign, Paul will run like he’s trailing by double digits. But Paul’s confidence is clear.

“It would behoove [Grayson] to prepare running for a different race,” Paul said.

The Final Four Weeks

Polls commissioned by the Louisville Courier-Journal showed that Paul was able to maintain a 15-point lead over Grayson from March to April, but several factors could have a significant impact on whether those numbers move during the final four weeks of the campaign.

It will be interesting to see if Paul can continue to ride the wave of tea party support without being hurt by being tied to some of the more radical elements that are drawn to the movement’s events.

After the Louisville tea party last week, Paul was questioned by a local reporter about a sign displayed by one attendee that depicted President Barack Obama as a terrorist.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people here are not outlandish,” Paul said. But the fact that he was being asked to defend the actions of the tea party supporters could create a few headaches, especially for a movement that revels in the fact that it is decentralized.

The Grayson camp will also have to decide which “strange ideas” it will focus in on in the final weeks of the campaign. Last week, the Grayson campaign seemed to be focusing on the issue of abortion.

In an interview, Grayson said Paul has been “all over the map” when it comes to his stance on abortion. Grayson has been endorsed by the Kentucky Right to Life Association, and on Friday Grayson was touting the endorsement of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a leading anti-abortion advocate.

Paul made sure to point out his endorsement by Right to Life of Northern Kentucky at each of his campaign stops on Wednesday and Thursday.

And finally, while McConnell has played a behind-the-scenes role so far in Grayson’s campaign, it will be a test now to see if he and other members of Kentucky’s delegation decide to play a much more active and high-profile role over the last month.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R), who hails from the 5th district, which is a key Republican area in the state, said last week that he’s likely to stay on the sidelines.

“I have no plans at the moment” to endorse, Rogers said in a brief interview at a charity event that benefited a local Christian school in Somerset and featured former first lady Laura Bush. “There’s a possibility,” Rogers said. He said he is leaning toward one candidate, “but I’m not going to tell you.”

Dick and Sondra Gwinn said that despite their impressions from the Lebanon Lincoln Day Dinner, they would throw their support in Grayson’s corner if McConnell came out and asked Republicans to back the secretary of state.

“If Mitch said I need Trey Grayson in Washington to fix this, that’s it. Because I trust Mitch,” Dick Gwinn said.

“I believe in Mitch McConnell,” Sondra Gwinn added.