One week from today, Kentucky Republicans will choose their nominee to replace retiring GOP senator Jim Bunning. The results will tell us a lot about the electorate's dyspeptic mood.
The campaign pits secretary of state Trey Grayson against Rand Paul, an eye doctor and son of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Grayson has the blessing of the GOP establishment: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Rep. Harold Rogers, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani. Paul has the support of passionate outsiders: his father, Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
The big question is whether Kentucky will look more like Indiana, where the insider Dan Coats benefited from a split between outsiders Jim Hostettler and Marlin Stutzman, or Utah and Florida, where the outsiders recently triumphed over big-name Republicans Bob Bennett and Charlie Crist. For a while now, the outsider has had the momentum. Paul has led in public polling all year.
Trey Grayson denies he is part of the establishment. "I've never worked in D.C.," he says. "My family's not involved in politics." And he disputes the comparison between his race and Utah. "It's 2,500 people in a convention versus 1 million Kentucky Republicans. It's apples to oranges," he says. Bennett, he says, "has been in Washington a long time. My dad hasn't been in Washington for 20 years." Unlike, say, Rand Paul's.
Despite the polling data showing Paul in the lead, the Harvard-educated Grayson, a former basketball player, insists the campaign is a "jump ball." He points to a large number of undecided voters, as well as the potential impact of Senator McConnell's endorsement. Though it was known in Washington that McConnell backed Grayson, the senator did not officially endorse him until last week. These days, Grayson says, "People keep coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, I saw your ad with Senator McConnell.'"
Kentucky Republicans adore McConnell, who led them out of the political wilderness and who is less polarizing (think Ron Paul and Sarah Palin) and more famous (think Jim DeMint) than Rand Paul's backers. "People in Kentucky," Grayson says, "have no idea who Jim DeMint is -- and I say that with all respect."
Grayson's chances depend on his ability to paint Paul as out of the GOP mainstream and more interested in the national prospects of the "pro-liberty movement" than the future of Kentucky. Grayson has seized on those Paul foreign policy statements that suggest he is more like his father than he cares to admit. But Paul also has been careful to distinguish himself from some of the extreme antiwar, civil libertarian, and antigovernment positions that could hurt his chances in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans. (One of those Democrats, incidentally, was none other than Trey Grayson, who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 before joining the GOP.)
"If his name were Randy Smith, a doctor with a taxpayer group, he wouldn't have so much attention," Grayson says. Unfortunately for the secretary of state, he is running against Rand Paul, not Randy Smith. And Paul is on track to further energize his father's outsider brand -- even if, as Sen. McConnell fears, that brand might endanger the GOP's chances to hold this seat in November.