Rand Paul and the GOP -- Post Politics Hour

Rand Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, defeated opponent Trey Grayson in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary on May 18.
Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; 11:00 AM

Post national politics writer Amy Gardner discussed her story about Kentucky senate candidate Rand Paul and his campaign's implications for the GOP.


Amy Gardner: Hello everyone! Sorry I'm late -- had to grab a coffee at Starbucks! Please hit me with your questions about the tea party, Kentucky, Utah -- and anything else you'd like to discuss today.


Louisville, Kentucky: Hello, Amy. I appreciate the spotlight in today's WP on this interesting Kentucky Primary.

Paul is from Bowling Green, where I lived for several years working as a newspaper reporter. It's a conservative part of the state that swings pretty red. Out there in the "real Kentucky" there's also a leeriness of all things from the big city of Louisville, where McConnell is based. So I understand the Rand Paul enthusiasm. I also predict that he will win the Republican primary on May 18.

Paul, if he wins, will face one of two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Dan (Mongiardo) or Atty Gen Jack Conway. I think there is lukewarm support for both men now, but that may heat up when the race is narrowed. Both Mongiardo and Conway are relatively long-time politicians, and I'm sure Paul would relish the contrast.

I don't think Rand Paul will have the statewide support that he needs, but this may be the year to prove people wrong. He appeals to a segment of the Republicans and Independents and DINOs, but statewide he will alienate more people than he collects.

If the contest is Mongiardo vs. Paul, I think Paul has a shot. If it's Conway vs. Paul, then Conway brings the added stigma of being a pretty boy from Louisville. Either way, thanks for paying attention. We are!

Amy Gardner: Hi there, and thanks for reading all the way from Louisville! I agree with your analysis completely. I wouldn't count Paul out in a general election. He's an energetic campaigner, and he does well on his feet. The trick for whichever Democrat emerges on Tuesday is to portray him as outside the mainstream. That's going to be tough in a year when being outside the establishment is not necessarily a bad thing in voters' minds.


Photo Comment: Just have to say that that photo of Paul wearing shorts at an interview is awesome!

Amy Gardner: Totally agree. Shout out to my friend and colleague Melina Mara. If you haven't looked at the full photo gallery online, it's a must-view.



Lexington, KY: "Paul has become a national hero of the tea party movement by opposing new taxes and deficit spending and supporting such ideas as the abolition of the Department of Education and amending the Constitution so that children born in the United States to illegal immigrants would no longer become citizens automatically."

What do you think it says about the state of the Republican Party that a candidate advocating such "interesting" policy ideas is very likely to win the upcoming primary?

Amy Gardner: I think it says a couple of things. First, the electorate is mad as heck, perhaps about different things, but they're coalescing around someone who's got a message that resonates for them emotionally. Second, Paul is a skilled candidate. He's engaging and energetic, and the crowds love him. That counts for a lot. Other theories welcome.


Falmouth, KY: "One of the next things you'll see is chaos on the streets. You'll see violence. . . . And it can happen even in America if we're not careful."

What do you make of this sort of rhetoric? I understand that Paul made this statement in the context of discussing Greek's debt crisis, but are these the sort of statements that Dems would seek to highlight if Paul's the GOP nominee?

Amy Gardner: I think that's right. He goes into more detail that I didn't include in the article about how bricks are going to start coming through windows at restaurants like the one he's talking in. And he repeats that line at stop after stop. If the Dems are smart, they'll start sending a video tracker out on Paul's campaign schedule right quick. Again, though: all bets are off this year as to whether these statements are dealbreakers to a general election. Paul's overall message that something dramatic needs to change in Washington is striking a chord.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I understand Rand Paul's views are very close the libertarian views of his father Ron Paul. Yet, I also read how he is considered more mainstream than his father. What in particular separates him from his father's views that makes him "more mainstream?"

Amy Gardner: This is an interesting question and it really depends on whom you talk to. I think Rand Paul's views on some issues have evolved a bit away from his father. Whether this is a political calculation or a genuine ideological shift is an open question. For example he has previously talked, like his father, about closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but he doesn't anymore. The younger Paul has also been clearer and perhaps more forceful on the campaign trail about his opposition to abortion in virtually all cases. He used to talk about abortion being a states' rights issue, but he now supports a federal "Human Life" amendment.


New York, N.Y.: I know that when people are seen only from the waist up, that it does not matter what they wear from the waist down. Yet, I am surprised a public figure is wearing shorts well, just for this reason. You know people are still going to take your photograph. Do you have any idea what Rand Paul chose to wear shorts what that photograph was taken?

Amy Gardner: I believe he was coming back from a soccer or baseball game with one of his sons. I have to say -- I think many voters find this endearing. He's a dad, a coach, a doctor, and a candidate. It's part of his campaign message. He's not a career politician. He's living his life out in Bowling Green and trying to fit this increasingly intense Senate campaign into that life. You could certainly argue that he's playing up that storyline by leaving the shorts on. Would it have been so difficult to throw on some khakis while he was already going to the trouble of buttoning up his shirt and tie?


A really weird photo choice, what was the Post thinking?: I am a Democrat and don't really warm to anybody in this story, especially Rand Paul. But do you think the Post was correct to show a picture of Rand Paul seemingly asleep (I'm sure his eyes were just momentarily closed or downturned) and seemingly in his underpants (in reality, shorts from going to a kids' soccer game) giganto-size on the front page of the paper?

The photo was so weird and frankly belittling and negative for two reasons: the inappropriate clothes that not only made him look dumb but also like a fake from the waist up, and the look of sleep or exhaustion (always bad for any politician to be seen that way). Your story was so good that I'm sorry the photo editors undercut it with a "stunt" photo choice that seemed incredibly biased. Did you like or dislike the picture and how it was played?

Amy Gardner: I really don't agree with this -- and I don't think Rand Paul would either. I think a lot of his supporters are going to view that picture as endearing and sort of "real-world." Not that that was our goal. It just depends on your perspective.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Does Rand Paul's good showing provide any vindication for Jim Bunning for supporting him?

Amy Gardner: I think that's possible. There's no question that his surge doesn't reflect well on Mitch McConnell, who hand-picked Trey Grayson and endorsed him last week. So it must be satisfying to Bunning supporters ... who are angry at McConnell's role in pushing Bunning out ... that McConnell's power is not absolute. On the other hand, as McConnell's people are quick to point out: Grayson is having trouble connecting with voters. Paul is not. So it's fair to remember that this race is about the candidates at least as much as it is about their proxies.


Anti-Incumbent or Anti-Democrat?: Would it be fair to say that the current political climate is more anti-incumbent than anti-Democrat? Obviously, since there are more Democratic incumbents the Dems have more cause for alarm, but aren't comparisons to the 1994 Republican sweep premature?

Amy Gardner: There's no question that the "anti-" movement is increasingly about Republicans right now in addition to Democrats. Utah showed us that, and Kentucky might too. And McCain in Arizona. And you could even apply that theme to Charlie Crist's troubles in Florida, even though he's not the incumbent Senator. Still, it's important to remember there are a lot more incumbent Democrats in peril than Republicans.


Paducah, KY: What do you think McConnell will do if Paul wins the primary? Is this proof that Mitch is loosing his control of the GOP in KY?

Amy Gardner: The first thing he will do is seek to stamp out that storyline as quickly as he can. He is not planning to travel to Kentucky on Tuesday for election night. You can attribute that to the not-so-fun night it's likely to be for Trey Grayson (and McConnell's desire, perhaps, not to be associated with the loss). Or you could, quite legitimately, remember that McConnell is pretty darn busy in Washington and has a couple of votes to cast that day. But McConnell has declared that he will be in Kentucky the following weekend, no matter who the Republican nominee is, for a unity rally. He gets that he needs to avoid open tension with Rand Paul for the general election. I think Paul gets that too, by the way, which is why Paul is not (so far) directly criticizing McConnell.


Bermuda: You've never seen someone wearing shorts with a coat and tie? Come to the islands!

Amy Gardner: Ha!


Paducah, KY: Who do you think will win the Democratic Primary in KY?

Amy Gardner: It's really close right now, and I have no idea. If anyone wants to weigh in, please do and I'll post. If I'm not mistaken, the conventional wisdom is that Mongiardo has more name recognition, but Conway is viewed as more progressive and therefore appeals more to the Democratic base.


Boston: If your recall the 2008 elections there is no love lost between the GOP and their media arm (FOX, etc.) and Ron Paul and his supporters. If Rand and others of his ilk start to have some success, where do the FOX conservatives go?

Amy Gardner: I don't know if that's accurate regarding Rand Paul. He's been a regular guest on Fox, which I'm sure has helped boost his popularity in Kentucky.


Carbondale IL: Kentucky is a net importer of federal tax dollars, isn't it? Doesn't Paul run the risk of endangering federal spending in his mostly poor, rural state? Don't voters get the contradiction?

Amy Gardner: This is an interesting question. Paul is definitely doing something risky when he talks about scaling back Social Security and throwing out the "fake" Republicans who campaign on low taxes but then come back to their communities and ask: "What building can I build for you now?" Voters seem to like Paul's frankness and the freshness of that message. It'll be another matter when/if the money actually stops flowing for new federal courthouses and federal grants for the University of Louisville, or whatever other example you choose to consider. Paul himself seems to recognize the danger. He's careful when he talks about Social Security to say he doesn't want to be the guy who cuts off your check -- but the system is broken and needs fixing, he adds. So what's the answer? I do think this is a potential opportunity for Democrats to exploit.


Albany, NY: When the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP gained ascendance in the party, it was a long road with setbacks along the way. Are there any indicators that will allow us to see whether the tea party movement will become the dominant force in the GOP or a relatively limited movement?

Amy Gardner: Great question. I think one good test of this will be Utah. That story is not over with the defeat of Bob Bennett. Now there is a runoff primary between Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater. They're both conservative and they're both looking to court the tea party movement. But FreedomWorks, the national tea party organization, is about to throw some serious resources behind Lee, whom they like better because Bridgewater supported expanding the Medicare drug benefit. But Lee is viewed as the dragon-slayer by Bennett supporters, and many more of them will participate in the June primary than did in the 3,500-delegate convention. Pay attention to that race to see just how influential the tea party is.


Bowling Green, Ky.: To clear up something:

Rand Paul doesn't have a voting record and didn't have a platform on record before starting this race. His opponent attempted to paint him as his father on GITMO and abortion. Rand never "changed" his views. Many assumed he was for closing GITMO because his father was. He didn't say he was for closing it early in the campaign and then change it later... and that is what you are implying, and you are misinformed. There are hundreds of speeches on youtube, please link to where he says to close GITMO if I'm wrong.

He never said he didn't support the federal amendment outlawing abortion either. He was just vocal in his support of a state solution to end abortion. I would assume because federal decree has made abortion legal all of his life. But, once again he didn't change his view.

The Pauls' do differ on earmarks and drug legalization.

Amy Gardner: I can't agree with you on this. To support a state solution is to very overtly imply that it's not a federal matter. That's the whole point of that phrase. On the issue of Gitmo: He *is* on YouTube talking about sending all the prisoners back to their home countries. I think some people out there would view this as a change of message.


Looking Ahead to November: Assuming Paul does win Tuesday's primary, how do you judge his ability to win a majority of the general electorate come November? Is a Paul v. Dem race going to be a tougher race for Republicans hoping to take this open seat than a Grayson v. Dem race would be?

Amy Gardner: Polls are mixed about this question. There is an anecdotal view that Grayson would do better against a Democrat and that Paul is too far out of the mainstream. But the public polls don't necessarily support this. I think the x factors are Paul's ample campaigning ability as well as the breadth of anger and upset out there in voter-land.


Kentucky Senate Primary: Let's assume for the moment that Rand Paul does, in fact, win Tuesday's primary. How much political damage does this do to Mitch McConnell in light of the fact that McConnell has backed Grayson from the start?

Amy Gardner: What I think a Paul win will show is that McConnell doesn't have the power to be kingmaker. But few politicians, even popular ones, do. McConnell's advisers are very adamant that McConnell remains popular among Republican primary voters in Kentucky, and I think that's right. But it's just interesting that Paul could win on such an overwhelmingly "anti-establishment" campaign in a state that's home to one of the edifices of the Washington establishment. More than a repudiation of McConnell, this race may just show the capacity of voters to be a little bit contradictory?


Amy Gardner: Alright, readers -- thanks so much for joining me on this overcast Washington Thursday. See you next time!


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