JESSICA BADER: Rand Paul’s first week as the Republican nominee for Kentucky’s open Senate seat has been eventful, to say the least. Most of the national attention has centered on his remarks about the Civil Rights Act, but there’s also been the similar ambivalence over the Americans with Disabilities Act, the unearthing of some conspiracy-mongering on the nonexistent Amero and NAFTA superhighway, the Good Morning America interview where he said that Barack Obama’s criticism of BP over the oil spill “[sounded] really un-American,” and finally, the last-minute cancellation of his scheduled appearance on Meet the Press (something previously done only by Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar). It’s been a pretty wild ride, and with more than five months until Election Day there’s still time for far more news to be made and older remarks to pop up. But what does it all mean for the Kentucky Senate race and politics in general?
I don’t think the Civil Rights Act flap will directly hurt Paul much in his quest to succeed Jim Bunning. Kentucky is both a Southern and an Appalachian state, a place where the Democratic Party has a significant registration advantage but the Republican candidate usually prevails in presidential elections. A state with lots of white evangelicals but not many blacks or Hispanics is not a state where people who might have otherwise voted for Rand Paul will change their mind because he has expressed some opposition to laws constraining a business’s ability to practice racial discrimination.
That being said, I could easily see the Civil Rights Act controversy hurting the GOP outside of Kentucky. A major part of the Democratic strategy for the midterm elections is to minimize the expected drop in turnout among key Obama constituencies, especially minorities and voters under the age of 30. Just as Arizona’s new immigration law is pushing Hispanic voters towards Democrats in other Western states, the national attention given to Paul’s comments and the GOP’s awkward handling of the whole situation could motivate minority turnout in other parts of the country.
Paul’s senatorial ambitions are more likely to be directly hurt by other comments he has made. While Kentucky is a socially conservative state, it is more moderate on economic issues, making Paul’s libertarian stances something of an awkward fit for the state. The nature of his criticism of Obama on the BP spill could also be problematic – while there is public discontent with the administration’s handling of the oil spill, it generally isn’t in the form of an argument that the government is being too tough on BP.
Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate and the state’s attorney general, has an opening to exploit some of Paul’s more out-there stances to minimize the crossovers among registered Democrats and perhaps even pick up some Republicans who would not have even been in play had the GOP nominated Trey Grayson. Conway probably won’t be asking Obama to come to Kentucky and campaign for him, but a Democrat who supported health care reform has a decent chance of winning a Senate seat this fall in a state where John McCain received 57% of the vote in 2008.
DAN SZYMBORSKI; Rand Paul getting the nomination is definitely one of the weirder things in recent years, no doubt reinforcing the notion that we are going to be witnessing one of the strangest election cycles in memory.
First off, this is one of the few years that Paul could pull off a Senate run. As Jessica notes, he’s kind of the opposite of Kentucky’s version of blue-collar Republicanism, which is generally socially conservative and fiscally moderate. Issues like gay marriage would, in a normal year probably hurt Paul quite a bit in the primary, given that Kentucky isn’t exactly the best environment for gay marriage or being against most of the Bush administration’s terrorism policies. Paul’s not smooth as candidate – he should never have been baited into talking about the Civil Rights Act in a forum in which he wouldn’t be able to have the time or support to differentiate between the libertarian argument about property and the states rights claptrap of Dixiecrats 40 years ago. It might not matter in this climate however – it’s a great election cycle for people that don’t “seem like” politicians.
Democrats should take comfort in one thing – if Paul wins the election, he will be a royal pain in the tuckus for the Republicans in the next 6 years. Libertarians and Republicans agree on a lot of things, but libertarians don’t generally have a lot of political loyalty and Reagan’s 11th Commandment won’t apply to the junior Paul any more than the senior Paul. He’ll be like Lieberman-squared and nearly impossible to even bribe.