Paul, Conway Headed for Showdown in Kentucky Senate Race

Posted May 18, 2010 at 10:06pm

Ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) and state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) are headed for a general election showdown in the Kentucky Senate race. Paul struck a major blow for the tea party movement by cruising to an easy victory over Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the GOP Senate primary Tuesday.

With 99 percent reporting, Paul had 59 percent to Grayson’s 35 percent.

Paul, the son of libertarian champion Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), ran a grass-roots campaign that sought to tap into the simmering anger voters are feeling against Washington this cycle. He embraced the tea party early and was successfully able to ride the movement even as Grayson tried to paint him as a political novice with radical views.

Grayson’s defeat, on the other hand, is a blow to the state and national party establishment that had backed his campaign. Grayson was unable come within 20 points of Paul despite the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who is considered the godfather of the modern Republican Party in Kentucky, went to bat for the secretary of state in a high-profile endorsement earlier this month. Polls show McConnell remains a popular figure in the state, but that wasn’t enough to carry Grayson to victory or even make the contest close.

“The Washington establishment threw everything they had at [Paul] and yet he prevailed,” said South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a vocal supporter of the tea party movement, in a statement Tuesday night praising Paul on his victory.

On the Democratic side, Conway hung on Tuesday night to eke out the Senate nomination against Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo.

With 99 percent reporting, Conway had 44 percent to 43 percent for Mongiardo.

The Democratic Senate contest was overshadowed in most national media by the high-profile battle on the Republican side. But in Kentucky, the race between Conway and Mongiardo had become a nasty affair in which the two men weren’t afraid to take personal shots at each other. Conway’s toughest attacks against Mongiardo were over large travel expenses that he billed to the state and accusations that Mongiardo had abused his state housing stipend.

Most of the state party establishment had lined up with Conway in the primary, although Mongiardo could claim an endorsement from Gov. Steve Beshear (D). But the governor’s support was tepid at best. It was announced in a press release and never came with any help on the campaign trail.

Conway had built up a sizable lead early Tuesday evening, especially after early returns came in from his base in Louisville. But Mongiardo narrowed the gap steadily as returns came in from the more rural parts of the state. But in the end it just wasn’t enough for Mongiardo, who came 2 points shy of winning the Senate seat when he ran against Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in 2004.

National Democrats appeared eager Tuesday evening to pick up where Grayson left off in attempting to paint Paul as too radical.

“Republicans nominated a very problematic candidate whose irrational policy positions generate national headlines, but hurt the people of Kentucky,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said in a memo Tuesday night. Menendez pointed to comments Paul has made about disbanding the Department of Education and other federal agencies.

Republican telegraphed their intention to nationalize the Senate contest this fall.

“Conway garnered the establishment’s support by promising to rubberstamp President Obama and Harry Reid’s out-of-control economic agenda if he’s elected this November, perpetuating the Democrats’ failed record of higher taxes, skyrocketing job loss, and bloated government bureaucracy in Washington,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said in his own memo.

In Kentucky’s House primaries, commercial pilot Todd Lally won the GOP nomination in the 3rd district on Tuesday and will face Rep. John Yarmuth (D) this fall. Like Paul, Lally ran a campaign based on tea party support.

Lally’s victory comes as a surprise, as most pundits predicted that restaurant chain owner Jeff Reetz, who was the preferred choice of the national GOP, would emerge from the contest.

Meanwhile, in the Lexington-based 6th district, attorney Andy Barr cruised to the GOP nomination over a crowded field that included wealthy former coal executive Mike Templeman, and he will face Rep. Ben Chandler (D) in November.

Within minutes of Barr’s victory, Democratic state officials made it clear that they intend to make Barr’s previous work for disgraced former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) a front-and-center issue in the general election.

Barr worked as a deputy general counsel to Fletcher — who was defeated in his re-election bid in the wake of a hiring scandal that made national headlines —before taking a job at the Lexington-based law firm Kinkead & Stilz.

“The only thing worse than a corrupt politician is the lawyer who tries to make it seem legal,” Sherman Brown, executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said in a statement.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Andy Sere fired back Tuesday night and blamed Chandler, rather than the state Democratic party, for the attack.

“As an appropriator with a famous last name and millions in the bank, it’s a little surprising to see Ben Chandler lash out so negatively, so quickly,” Sere said. “But if you joined Obama in support of a failed stimulus, a job-killing cap-and-trade tax and a higher national debt ceiling, you’d act like a desperate Washington politician, too.”