In many respects, 2015 represents a high-water mark for Republicans in Kentucky. But the GOP’s Bluegrass State successes bring new challenges.
Fresh off his landslide reelection last year, Mitch McConnell is majority leader and getting rave reviews for making the Senate function again. The state’s junior senator, Rand Paul, has a national following and is a credible candidate for president. No state can boast a more influential pair of senators.
Representative Hal Rogers from rural and relatively poor eastern Kentucky is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a plum post, albeit less powerful than it used to be. Republicans hold four of the state’s five other congressional seats.
Kentucky has not elected a Democratic senator since 1992 and has not gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1996. But it’s not as dependably red in state elections.
In this year’s gubernatorial race, though, a recent survey by a Democratic-leaning pollster put Republican Matt Bevin ahead of Democratic state attorney general Jack Conway, whom Paul trounced in the 2010 Senate fight. Republicans lead Democrats down the entire slate of constitutional offices, a situation never before seen in a state that has elected only one GOP governor since 1967.
Republicans enjoy a secure majority in the state senate and are within striking distance of finally capturing the state house of representatives. McConnell calls that a top priority on his political “bucket list” for next year.
The GOP is rapidly gaining ground on the long-dominant Democrats in voter registration. The ratio of 1.35 Democrats to every Republican is the lowest in memory and shrinks with each new report.
So Bluegrass State Republicans should be celebrating, right? As ESPN commentator and former football coach of McConnell’s beloved University of Louisville Cardinals Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, my friend!”
McConnell’s tenure atop the Senate is tenuous. Republicans must defend 24 Senate seats in 2016, while Democrats have only 10 on the line. Almost a third of those Republican seats are in states President Obama won twice. If Democrats win five of them, they recapture the majority.
Paul’s determination to seek reelection to the Senate while running for president increases that risk. A Kentucky statute forbids candidates from being on the ballot for two offices. Instead of challenging that law in court, perhaps as an unconstitutional imposition of an additional qualification for federal office, Paul seems to have convinced Kentucky’s Republican apparatus to hold a presidential caucus instead of a primary. He promises to foot the bill for it, too.
This gambit, in which McConnell has apparently acquiesced, could generate a lawsuit, maybe by Democratic secretary of state Allison Lundergan Grimes. She desperately needs something to stay relevant after McConnell trounced her in the Senate race last year despite seemingly daily campaign appearances on her behalf by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Kentucky law also strictly limits substitutions after the filing deadline, so the GOP may not be able to name a new Senate candidate in the admittedly unlikely event Paul becomes the party’s presidential standard-bearer. Politico put it this way: “The worst-case scenario could mean either that Paul would have to forfeit Kentucky’s eight electoral votes to a Democratic presidential candidate or abandon the Senate seat and leave his party without a candidate in next year’s general election.”
Paul’s camp argues the party could name a replacement. Nobody knows how this scenario will play out, and there is plenty of grumbling about it.
The prudent course would see a friendly alternative run, someone who promises to throw his or her support to Paul if his presidential hopes have petered out by the May Senate primary. McConnell publicly professes support for Paul’s presidential campaign, but they fought ferociously during the debate on renewal of the Patriot Act. Given some of Paul’s positions, particularly on national security issues like that one, pro-defense Kentucky Republicans might conclude he should have a primary opponent on policy as well as political grounds. That is unlikely, but without someone else on that ballot, Paul’s dual ambitions put Republicans in Kentucky and the country in a needlessly precarious position. Popular and effective state auditor Adam Edelen is likely to be the Democratic foe in the general.