Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul got a rare show of support for his presidential campaign this week with the endorsement of Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
Mulvaney — the only member of the early primary state’s congressional delegation to endorse in the race so far — lent his endorsement Monday at a time when polling continues to suggest Paul is struggling to gain traction, leading to questions from the political class in Washington and Frankfort about the viability of his candidacy in the crowded field to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
But with the exception of Mulvaney, 4 of the 5 Republicans in Kentucky's delegation, Kentucky's other senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a handful of others, Paul’s shallow support in Congress mirrors the kind of support his presidential campaign has earned in GOP primary polls. That has prompted some concerns to be raised about his strength in what should be a safe re-election race for a Republican.
"Sen. Paul earned a lot of goodwill with his efforts last year to help Republicans win back the majority and I suspect party leaders have wanted to give him some deserved leeway” for how long to carry on both campaigns, said Brian Walsh, a Republican operative who has worked on House and Senate races for more than a decade. “But there’s no question that every seat will be critical to holding the majority, that every senator running for re-election will need to spend a lot of time back home and at some point soon Senator Paul will have to make a decision on his future."
According to a CNN poll released Sunday, the presidential race has wrought a decline in Paul’s national popularity. When Republican voters were surveyed from Sept. 17 to Sept. 19, 37 percent of them said they had an unfavorable view of Paul — up 7 percent since a July CNN poll. The Sunday poll found 22 percent of voters thought Paul did the worst job in last week’s debate, second only to Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Back home in Kentucky, Paul is running parallel campaigns for the presidency and re-election to the Senate — after securing the money for his home state to have a Republican caucus instead of a primary, in which Kentucky law prohibits a candidate from appearing twice on a ballot.
One Kentucky Republican operative said that unlike Sen. Marco Rubio — the Florida Republican also from the class of 2010 who placed “all his chips on the table" by opting against a run for re-election — the perception is that Paul has relegated his re-election to merely a "second choice."
“The Senate seat in Kentucky should not be a consolation prize,” the Republican said. An aide to Paul who asked not to be identified said that with the Kentucky statewide races on the ballot this fall, the 2016 campaign is not likely to start until November at the earliest. But, nonetheless, the aide added that Paul — who will hold five Senate fundraising events over the next several days — has a Senate finance and a communications team in place, and that the campaign will soon begin hiring grass-roots organizers.
A Democratic victory in Kentucky — where the Senate race is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenburg & Gonazles Political Report /Roll Call — would be a major feat. The party has not won a Senate seat in the state since 1992, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney bested President Barack Obama there with 60 percent of the vote. In 2014, McConnell beat his well-funded Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, by 15 points.
As Paul has struggled to gain momentum in the early states, a veiled choir of Republicans back home — speaking loudly, but privately — have voiced grave concerns that Paul is providing Democrats a loose thread that could help them unravel his re-election plans, and in turn, their grip on his seat.
Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green who serves on the Republican State Central Committee, said some of that concern is being overblown. On one hand, Lasley agrees Paul has been damaged, but on the other, he does not think Paul is making it any worse by staying in the presidential race. No Democrat has gotten into the race.
"I don’t think he’s continuing to do tons of damage until something changes, like if someone gets in a primary or a Democrat gets in," he said.
Lasley added that one possible Democratic contender — Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen — could mitigate some of that damage in a way. This fall, Edelen is making his case to voters about why they should give him another term as auditor, which Lasley said could cause some "awkwardness" for him if he were to launch a Senate campaign before November or criticize Paul for following his own back-up plan.
“[Edelen] can’t just come up the next week after the election and say, 'Thanks for re-electing me, I’m running for U.S. Senate now,'” he said. “That takes a bit of that heat off.”
But for now, Democrats are using the issue to attack Paul.
“As if it weren’t clear enough already, Rand Paul has now dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell Kentucky voters that they are his second choice,” said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, echoing the language used privately by some Republicans there. “Kentucky voters deserve better than a senator who views them as a consolation prize.”
Edelen — whose re-election effort just got a $100,000 boost from the super PAC , Kentuckians for Honesty in Government — could enter the race with an inflated profile, depending on his success in November.
While Paul has maintained a small campaign operation at home, his ground game has been limited, Republicans say. He has missed many of the parades typically populated by political candidates, and in August, he even missed the Fancy Farm picnic — an annual political cattle call viewed as a must-attend event for candidates. His absence prompted Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones — the Democrat considering a campaign against Republican Rep. Andy Barr — to zing from the stage , "Rand Paul is busy, he has a presidential race to lose.”
The event was attended by McConnell, who, despite his national duties, has prioritized his local operation. Deanna Brangers, the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said McConnell has made a point to attend events off the beaten path such as the annual Campbellsville 4th of July celebration, a 90-mile drive from Louisville.
“I don’t know of a year where he’s not been at that parade. Every tractor in 10 counties is in that parade,” she said describing its draw in the area, adding that Paul has been largely absent. “Every campaign approaches this stuff differently.”
Among conservatives who make up the party’s base in the Bluegrass State, Brangers said there is a concern about his absence on the ground, but right now, the party is focused on major statewide contests approaching this fall, including the heated governor’s race that is rated by Rothenberg & Gonzales/Roll Call as a Tossup .
“Some people aren’t really thrilled, but at the end of the day, he’s in pretty good shape here,” she said. “It is up to him to make that decision if he’s going to continue to go forward.”