Now, both parties will turn to the general election.Republicans hope Paul can pull off a repeat performance of his home state colleague Mitch McConnell’s crushing defeat against Alison Lundergan Grimes in 2014.
Issues that received little traction during the primary — like the Senate’s inaction on President Obama’s latest Supreme Court nominee, or even Donald Trump (Paul has said he will support the Republican nominee — will likely play a bigger role in the November contest.
But Paul needs to start fundraising in earnest for what may turn out to be a competitive contest against Gray, who gained personal wealth from running his family’s construction firm and has shown he’s ready to use it to beat Paul.
Gray raised $750,000 and loaned his campaign $1 million in the first quarter of the year while Paul raised $530,000. Both Paul and Gray had $1.5 million cash on hand, though Gray later cut a check on his first statewide television ad buy.
Before February when Paul dropped out of the presidential contest, the senator was focused on bringing in funds for that campaign and his Reinventing a New Direction “RAND” political action committee. The group, which still had about $54,000 cash on hand at the end of the first quarter, cannot fund Paul’s Senate campaign but can help pay for other expenses.
Since returning to Kentucky, Paul finds himself trying to play a bit of catch up in the money chase.
“Do I wish Rand had more than a million and a half in the bank right now? Yes,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican operative with ties to McConnell. “Then again, he wasn’t out raising money for the Senate race … Rand Paul needs to raise more money. I know they are out ramping up and rebuilding.”
It’s a change of gears for Paul, the 53-year-old son of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The libertarian-minded senator won less than five percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, and lacking strong support and financing amid a crowded field, chose to refocus his attention on reelection in his adoptive home state.
In a victory for Paul, the Kentucky Republican Party agreed to hold a presidential caucus in March as well as Tuesday’s primary, allowing Paul to mount runs for the White House and the Senate at the same time. The senator agreed to pay for the caucus, though by the time it happened, he was no longer running for president.
Now, his message to voters is much the same as it was in his first campaign, when he ran as an insurgent against the Washington establishment: smaller government, less regulation, lower taxes. Paul is still stressing criminal justice reform, an issue that is making slow progress in the Senate. And since Hillary Clinton said she’s “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” he’s been hammering the loss of Kentucky coal jobs. (Clinton later apologized for her comment.)
The contest in November is not expected to attract the intense media scrutiny or vast political spending that did the McConnell-Grimes race. But Paul’s Senate campaign still has enlisted top talent from Kentucky political circles, including former McConnell finance director Laura Haney, to help ferret out dollars.
This week, the senator is expected to raise funds on the sidelines of the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, where he will speak alongside Trump, McConnell, Trump backer Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Paul’s one-time presidential rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
A campaign spokeswoman, citing Paul’s official town halls in close to 60 counties across the state, said he’s “hitting his stride.”
“We’ve been in Senate mode for a quite a while,” said Kelsey Cooper, who rejected the idea that Paul’s focus has not been on Kentucky. “He was in Senate mode while he was running for president, too. He maintained a 96-percent voting record and he was still doing events in Kentucky, keeping incredibly busy.”
Paul’s presidential ambitions have made him an easy target for national Democrats eager to weaken a Republican figure who will be difficult to oust in November.
“Rand Paul treats his Senate seat as a placeholder for the White House, and his disinterest in serving the people of Kentucky has rightly hurt his campaign: he was out-raised by Mayor Jim Gray last quarter. Now, running with Donald Trump, Senator Paul’s uphill battle is even steeper as he faces a competitive challenger ready to hold him accountable for failing to do his job,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said in a statement.
The Paul campaign argued the fundraising disparity between Paul and Gray will not matter as the race heats up. Gray is competing Tuesday against six Democratic primary rivals.
Paul’s primary, in contrast, has been unusually quiet. There have been no ads from his rivals and no debates, a rarity for Republican candidates facing angry grassroots voters this year.
Gray spokeswoman Cathy Lindsey said Paul’s national fundraising network is “seemingly not pulling through for him.”
“This speaks to his weak position as an incumbent,” Lindsey said in a statement. “Here in Kentucky, he is seen as not only out of touch with Kentuckians, but out of the mainstream of what is good for Kentucky – focusing only on his own ambitions.”