How Rand Paul, Tea Party Darling, Learned to Love Mitch McConnell and the GOP Establishment
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This article was reported in collaboration with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
When Rand Paul launched his Tea Party-branded candidacy for Kentucky's open U.S. Senate seat, he was seen as an upstart challenger to the authority of senate minority leader and senior Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, who had backed another candidate. But today, the two are joined together in the bonds of political pragmatism, as Paul battles Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general, in a tight race -- a race that has required a lot of money to keep him viable. Establishment money. Republican money. Money in coffers to which McConnell holds the keys.
And McConnell needs Paul to win that Senate seat this year, not just to bolster Republican numbers up there, but to ward off intimations of his own political mortality down here, which were almost impossible to ignore at the annual Fancy Farm picnic, the traditional kick-off for statewide campaigning in Kentucky.
It was 94 degrees in the shade on the second Saturday in August, a bright and muggy day in the tiny town of Fancy Farm, when McConnell, the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history, took the podium -- and got roundly booed. Not just razzed, but really booed, so much so you almost could not hear him speak. A retired teacher sitting in the bleachers with me leaned over and said, quietly, “I hate that sumbitch.”
Along with a healthy slice of the national press, we were all there to see whether this year’s Tea Party anger might make the Fancy Farm picnic, an old-fashioned, tub-thumping display of political conviction and spittle-flecked speechifying, go off like a powder keg.
Some in the media expected Conway, opponent of Tea Party darling Rand Paul, to face a severe hazing from angry, overwhelmingly white, deficit-angered Kentucky voters. But the Tea Party was barely visible at Fancy Farm -- just one sign and two guys dressed up, one as the “Death Tax” (a “threat to family farms!”) and one as George Washington.
The tar and feathers were destined instead for Mitch, as he's known here. There’s a revolution going on in Kentucky, all right, just like there is all around the country, but make no mistake: its chief target, from the very beginning, has been the Republican leadership.
That’s the real meaning behind Rand Paul’s 60-point victory last May over McConnell’s handpicked protégé, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a lawyer and local banking heir. Grayson, following tradition that has primary losers often addressing the event, was at Fancy Farm, too, but he fared little better than his mentor. When Grayson spoke past his allotted time, provoking the band to cut him off mid-sentence with a rendition of “Rocky Top,” well more than half the crowd broke into spontaneous catcalls, chanting, “Na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, Goodbye!”
It is not a good year to be a traditional Republican in Kentucky. And if there’s one thing you can’t accuse Rand Paul of being, it’s traditional.
Beginning with his ignorance of Kentucky culture through the revelations of a college prank that had him tying up a co-ed and making her pray to a mock deity called Aqua Buddha, Paul is an odd bird on the bluegrass landscape. What keeps his candidacy chugging along seems to be his identity as insurgent -- the man who beat the pick of the party boss. Yet as the Republican nominee, Paul is finding the line between insurgent and standard-bearer difficult to straddle, dependent as he is on the largesse of the man rebuked by Paul’s very candidacy.
Paul's deference is paying off -- not only in direct campaign funds from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), but more than $1 million spent on his behalf by groups run by establishment Republicans. Meanwhile, he continues to rake in tens of thousands from Tea Party-allied groups, as well.
In a way, the Kentucky Senate contest has become a race between two Rand Pauls: the reckless, insurgent, Tea Party Rand Paul of the primary, and, after Fancy Farm, the cautious, McConnell-friendly, much better-financed Rand Paul.
At Fancy Farm, Paul followed Conway—who gave a well-received stem-winder—with a speech that wilted the audience faster than the summer sun. Paul counted the pages in the federal tax code, pointed to eight people in the bleachers who held up the eight cardboard boxes necessary to hold the entire tax code, and rambled on about the “enumerated powers” given to Congress by the Constitution.
Though his message was pure Tea Party, his presence that day was hostage to the hostility bestowed on the Senate majority leader. When his speech was done, flouting tradition, Rand and Mitch turned heel together and stalked off the stage to their black, smoke-windowed SUV, without so much as shaking the hand of a single picnicker.
A couple days later, Paul went on Sean Hannity’s radio show, telling Hannity he had run off the Fancy Farm stage because the event was a “wild picnic” and he and the other politicians were afraid someone would “throw beer on us.” Even though St. Jerome does not serve alcohol. And the county is dry.
By just about any traditional populist measure, that was an insult—an insult to the priests of St. Jerome Catholic Church, who run the picnic; to all the folks who attended, and really, to the 130-year tradition in Kentucky politics that Fancy Farm represents. And it’s not out of character for Paul, who has blurted out other, similar things on the campaign trail this year. Like, for example, telling a reporter for Details magazine that “The Dukes of Hazzard” was set in the Kentucky town of Hazard, when it was actually set in a fictional Georgia county. Or defending coal company mountain-top removal by saying, “We’re not talking about Mt. Everest. We’re talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here.”
Paul celebrated his primary victory with an enormous gaffe on MSNBC's " The Rachel Maddow Show" the day after his win, when he clumsily expressed “reservations” about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and saw his 25-point lead drop by 18 points. Since then, Paul has stuck by McConnell’s advice not to speak into any microphone but that of Fox News -- which happens to be run by McConnell's former campaign adviser, Roger Ailes.
I was born and raised in Louisville, and in my experience, saying the sort of things Paul says are traditional ways of not getting elected in this state. But Rand Paul’s unconventional candidacy has taken wing in a year when conventional political wisdom counts for nothing next to a devastated economy and widespread home foreclosures. In July, of all 50 states, Kentucky had the third highest differential between a home’s assessed 2010 sale price and its average foreclosed value—after foreclosure, Kentucky homes are worth 43 percent less than their original price. There are 15 percent more foreclosures this quarter compared to the second quarter of 2009. (Only Wisconsin and Ohio are worse.)
Kentucky is a poor state, with nearly 18 percent of its people living under the poverty line (the second highest rate in the union), and there's a timeworn strain of suspicion among Kentuckians that urban financial elites are plotting against them.
“Most Kentucky Tea Partiers I’ve spoken to are small business owners -- folks who run a local heating and cooling business, hardware store owners, corporate franchisees, or independent professionals,” says Josh Moss, a staff writer for Louisville magazine who has covered the Tea Party since last spring. Rand Paul himself, an ophthalmologist who earns more than $250,000 a year doing mostly Lasik eye surgery, fits the bill (though Medicare pays better than the clients of most small businesses).
If Moss's anecdotal evidence is on target (no statistics are available on the rate of small-business ownership among Tea Partiers), then the movement in Kentucky basically comprises people whose take-home pay comes from after-tax revenues, not a salary. Dan Blanchard, for example, the Louisville Tea Party chief, works as a psychological services provider for the Evergreen Christian Counseling Center. Many of these businesses and independent contractors are reeling in an economy where their former clients are losing their jobs and their homes.
Paul, a Texas transplant who’s lived here since 1993, was remarkably successful as a GOP insurgent because he directly attacked his party’s tight relationship with the big banks that are doing the foreclosing. His main TV ad accused Trey Grayson of harvesting campaign contributions from corporations (like AIG) that benefited from the TARP bailouts his mentor, Mitch McConnell, had pushed through the Senate. Paul pledged never to do so himself, and opponents of the bailouts flocked to him in the primary.
An Arranged Marriage
Rand Paul’s fortunes have been linked to those of Mitch McConnell every step of the way, first in opposition and then in an awkward arranged marriage arranged by outsiders playing an inside game within the Republican Party, seeking to weaken McConnell so he'll bend their way in coming legislative battles.
When Paul first entered the race, his candidacy was framed as an outsider’s challenge to business-as-usual among Republicans in general, and to Mitch McConnell in particular. In February, as Paul’s protest candidacy grew, FreedomWorks, the corporate-sponsored umbrella group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, took out newspaper ads headlined “Senator Mitch McConnell: Kentucky Taxpayers Are Watching You!” and denouncing the stimulus package then before Congress.
FreedomWorks, under its tax status as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, is barred from giving directly to campaigns (it controls only a small PAC), but it has given advice and modest funding to state Tea Party groups that chime along with Paul’s message about the dire fiscal calamity threatened by Keynesian spending. FreedomWorks also provides other services such as organizing grassroots activists throughout the country; through its PAC, it encourages activists to use the organization's web-based phone-banking system to make calls to Kentucky voters on Paul's behalf. The website template used by many Kentucky Tea Party groups is provided by FreedomWorks.
The nonprofit is allied with Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the de facto head of the Tea Party in the Senate, who endorsed Paul the day after McConnell anointed Grayson. DeMint’s PAC, the Senate Conservative Fund, became one of Paul’s largest single donors, giving $5,000 to defray primary costs and more than $41,000 by the end of August. Add in the "independent expenditures" the Senate Conservatives Fund has made for ads and Internet solicitations, and their spending on behalf of Paul's Senate quest currently tallies up at $91,000. On October 2, DeMint himself joined Rand’s father, Ron Paul, for a campaign appearance in Kentucky, promising more help before election day.
DeMint claims he’s not interested in replacing McConnell as Senate GOP leader, and has promised all along that his support for Tea Party candidates was not “unfriendly” -- he just disagrees with McConnell about the bailouts and the stimulus on conservative principle. (DeMint, who has spread more than $3 million around the country for this uprising, has hinted that he may consider some other elected position in the party leadership after November 2.) Yet not one of the 129 Tea Party candidates running for the House or the nine in Senate races was nominated in a Democratic-leaning district, hinting that the Tea Party is a replay of the evangelical takeover of much of the party's machinery in the late ’80s and ’90s.
It’s no accident that the two tightest Tea Party races in this bizarre election year are taking place in the states from which the Senate's majority and minority leaders hail. Like the battle between Paul and Conway, Sharron Angle and Harry Reid are locked in a race in Nevada that seesaws within the margin of error. Reid has been targeted by FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund, the same forces taking aim at McConnell, and Angle's victory over the Republican establishment candidate Sue Lowden was a Tea Party triumph like Paul's.
Not Exactly Republican
Rand Paul was the first of DeMint’s insurgents to win a Republican primary, garnering enormous attention for a relatively small investment and delivering a humbling blow to the Senate minority leader in his home state. But what few in the media recognized back then were the unique circumstances that made that early victory possible.
Even though Kentucky sends Republicans to Congress, the majority of voters don't identify with the party. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans there by almost 2 to 1 (1.6 million Dems to less than a million Republicans), and the New Deal is remembered fondly: it brought electricity to rural Kentuckians for the first time through the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Despite the fact that Kentucky swung Republican in recent presidential contests, most state and local offices are still held by Democrats. So, red as the Washington delegation may be, nobody gets to the U.S. Capitol without a lot of Democratic votes. And the contests are often close: McConnell won his first Senate race, in 1984, by less than half a percent.
That dearth of registered Republicans means that Rand Paul won the GOP primary with fewer votes than the losing Democratic primary candidate, Dan Mongiardo, received in his party's primary. Bluegrass Dems cast 125,000 more primary votes than Republicans this year.
In order to win the general election, then, Paul needs every Republican vote he can muster -- plus a healthy proportion of conservative Democrats. To do that, he'll need to follow the course first charted 26 years ago for McConnell by his then campaign adviser Roger Ailes, and build a formidable war chest for flooding Kentucky’s airwaves with ads.
So, Rand Paul has snuggled ever closer to Mitch McConnell, in order to lock up those Republican votes and open up the Republican money spigot. His arm-in-arm exit from Fancy Farm with the heckled minority leader was followed by their joint appearance in Washington in June for a fundraiser that included politicians who voted for and firms that benefited from TARP -- something Paul had promised he would never do. He even, finally, promised that if elected to the Senate, he would vote for Mitch as leader.
Running From the Tea Party
In his primary victory speech, Paul said, "I have a message from the Tea Party… We've come to take our government back." But not long after, Paul began running away from the Tea Party after Andrew Breitbart’s clip job fiasco with Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP reinforced accusations of racism within the movement, and its candidates around the country were tagged as freaks by the national press (not just against Civil Rights and Social Security, but for witchcraft, Nazi re-enactments, and personal bankruptcies).
In the media, Rand Paul's candidacy is often cited as evidence of a national, grassroots-led juggernaut. But the organization and activities of ground-level Tea Party groups in Kentucky would suggest otherwise.
Whatever the power-grabbing aims of FreedomWorks, the actual grassroots Kentucky Tea Party movement is less an insurgency than a sort of open-source protest movement, not unlike Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential candidacy. Both got started using MeetUp.com, the Internet-based, local business organizing site, and both united around a big, definitional, “atmospheric” issue: In Dean’s case, opposition to the Iraq War; in the Tea Party’s case, the financial bailouts and Obama’s faltering efforts to restart the economy.
There are very few requirements for joining, no actual responsibilities once you do (no dues, for example, though voluntary donations are always welcome), and only vague goals. The Louisville Grassroots Tea Party, the largest group in the city with 746 members, offers this agenda: “…for smaller government, less spending, less taxes, secure borders, and the free market.” It’s struggling right now to raise the money for a billboard printed with a waving flag, the front page of the Constitution, and the name of its website. The Louisville Grassroots site links to 50 or so other Kentucky Tea Parties, many of which use the same website design, and even have overlapping memberships.
The Tea Party does have local leaders -- Blanchard is a New Hampshire native and lifelong Republican -- but they’re not exactly ward-heeling whip bosses. They’re more like the people who chair church auxiliaries or business social clubs. The groups get together, talk about whatever upsets them, and every now and then assemble for a public protest (the Louisville Grassroots Tea Party was founded last year at an April 15 Anti-Tax Rally at the old Jefferson County Courthouse).
Watching Rand Paul, it's not hard to think he believed in his own candidacy as a Tea Party insurgent on the night he won his primary, and feel for him, as he has had to curb his tongue in the grub for money that followed. Still, Paul has stubbornly clung to some of his peppery, anti-deficit primary talk in order to keep his claim to being a protest candidate. At first, his saying we need to “look at” the cost of things like federal agriculture supports (in a rural state that depends on $125 million in annual subsidies) and our expensive international wars seemed boldly independent. Then he added that Medicare could be “fixed by requiring an annual $2,000 deductible,” a dangerous thing to say in a state that exports its youth.
But over the past several weeks, Paul has started to argue that quote was being taken out of context, but when Conway turned a videotape of Paul saying precisely that into a devastating TV ad, the Bowling Green ophthalmologist began to look like a typical, prevaricating politician.
Or a lot like Mitch McConnell.
Where the Money Is
In one way, Mitch McConnell is the victim of his own recipe for success, now echoed in the candidacy of Rand Paul. McConnell was one of the first Kentucky candidates for national office to seek campaign expertise and assistance from experts outside of the state, much as Paul has with Armey and DeMint. And just as Paul took advantage of the FreedomWorks/DeMint power grab to seize the nomination under the Tea Party brand, McConnell consolidated his power through the religious right's appropriation of the GOP in decades past.
You only have to look at McConnell to know he’s not a people person. Unlike Paul, however, he’s a dealmaker. And what he’s bringing to the table in their uneasy partnership are connections that will spend millions in Paul’s behalf for TV ads. Outside groups, according to Kentucky.com, have reserved three times as much airtime on Lexington TV stations (Lexington’s is the only market that broadcasts entirely within the state) for Rand Paul and Congressional hopeful Andy Barr than for Conway and Congressman Ben Chandler.
The two parties have established a kind of parity, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee buying $1.3 million on Kentucky TV stations and the opposing NRSC, $941,332 (at latest count). But among the independent groups in this first year after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, there is no comparison. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, has bought $129,000 on Lexington stations to attack healthcare reform and Jack Conway; Moveon.org has managed to spend $14,000 to counter the Chamber. Karl Rove’s outfits, American Crossroads and American Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, have spent $478,771 and $461,460, respectively, on pro-Paul ads; American Crossroads GPS had already spent $520,000 to attack “Obamacare.”
The largest single donor to American Crossroads, at $1.55 million this year, is Kentucky's B. Wayne Hughes, the self-storage pooh-bah and owner of Spendthrift Farm (one of the two most famous thoroughbred farms in Lexington). Kentuckians in Louisville and the central part of the state recently say the Republican ads are already incessant, and their presence will only grow over the next couple of weeks.
Conway still trails Paul in the average of polls, but the best local surveys, sponsored by Louisville’s Courier-Journal, have shown him gaining fairly steadily in the past month. And cautious as Conway has seemed from the beginning, he’s proven to be a ruthless ad-maker -- one who kept his ammunition dry until the final push. In addition to the tough Medicare ad, he recently released a blistering one about Paul’s “Aqua Buddha” days at Baylor University (courtesy of an exposé from GQ magazine), hinting that Rand is less than a good Christian. He's so far refrained from making hay of reports of Paul's college-era marijuana use, but there are still a few days to go in the race.
Will Karl Rove's money and Dick Armey's phone-bankers be able to make up for Rand Paul's missteps and his palling around with the GOP's ultimate insider? The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman, who covered politics for the Louisville Courier-Journal for many years, reports that many of the Tea Party people he’s spoken to have lost enthusiasm for Paul. People down there are still mad about the bailouts: "When will Kentucky get its bailout?" is a common refrain. But some are beginning to think Rand Paul has already gotten his—through the good offices of Mitch McConnell.