Sen. Rand Paul wasn’t on the ballot Tuesday, but the Kentucky Republican got a much needed victory that might quell — for now — the calls for him to bow out of the 2016 presidential race and focus on winning another Senate term.
In a come-from-behind victory, Republican Matt Bevin won the Kentucky governor’s race and Republicans nearly swept the other down-ballot races, including knocking off the incumbent state auditor who national Democrats had hoped would challenge Paul in next year’s Senate race.
The results demonstrated that the onetime border state’s partisan lean continues to drift further to the right like its southern neighbors, giving Paul evidence to push back against critics who fear that his presidential ambition is putting his Senate seat at risk.
“What this election shows is that people who’ve been promoting Democrats on the rise in Kentucky have been completely wrong,” Paul said in an interview after Tuesday’s resounding Republican win. “Not only has President Obama destroyed the party in Kentucky, he’s destroyed the bench. The bench that was supposed to rise up and run for office -- that’s gone.”
Some GOP activists in Kentucky, joined by an increasingly vocal set of congressional Republicans, had questioned Paul’s dual-track candidacy for the presidency and Senate re-election. His popularity at home has taken a hit and Democrats had been pushing state auditor Adam Edelen as the potential challenger.
Instead, Edelen lost his race and Kentucky Democrats will hold just two statewide offices, including that of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose narrow win Tuesday came a year after her 2014 challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ended in a crushing defeat.
“Rand Paul just got the greatest early Christmas present ever,” said Todd Inman, a Republican activist from Owensboro, 100 miles west of Louisville.
Democrats were left stunned by the losses after holding the governor’s mansion 40 of the past 44 years. “Anyone honest would have to say the Democratic Party’s reeling right now,” said Greg Stumbo, the Democratic speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives. Stumbo admitted that next year might be too soon to expect a recovery: “Can we beat Rand Paul? I don’t know.”
Paul said he plans to continue dismissing the gossip mill that has tried to at least nudge him into setting a deadline to consider withdrawing, so that his Senate seat can remain safely in the GOP column.
“You wonder how the Washington narrative gets started,” Paul said Tuesday night. “We’ve always felt like I was in a strong position in Kentucky.”
Despite Tuesday’s reprieve, the first-term senator with a libertarian bent must kick-start his presidential campaign or face another round of calls to withdraw simply because of his performance in the national campaign. Poor fundraising and uneven debate performances have provided little traction in critical early primary states and in national polling.
“I’ve been very disappointed in the campaign of Rand Paul. Something’s missing. I don’t know exactly what it is. I’d endorsed him months ago. I quite frankly don’t know now,” Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said Tuesday, pushing for a deadline to turn around the campaign. “It seems that if they don’t get off the ground in the next couple weeks, they need to make a decision. Rand has made some decisions that just did not energize the base.”
Some Kentucky activists say Paul might have already done enough damage to his standing at home that the Senate race will require substantial financial resources from national political parties and super PACs. “If he wasn’t running for both, it would be a cakewalk. This might require an investment that otherwise wouldn't have been needed,” said Scott Lasley, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky’s 2nd Congressional District, based in Paul’s hometown of Bowling Green.
That was not supposed to be the case back in the spring, when operatives in both parties conceded Paul was too popular and McConnell’s resounding victory there in 2014 showed the steep climb Democrats faced. Instead, both parties have focused on a handful of Senate races across the Midwest and in Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada.
At stake is control of the Senate, setting its agenda and the ability to confirm — or reject — cabinet selections for the next president.
Needing at least a four-seat gain for the majority, Democrats had hoped to expand the map to include the Bluegrass State.
According to polling data tracked by Kentucky Democrats, Paul’s favorability rating has taken a sharp hit: In April, 44 percent of voters had a favorable impression versus just 31 percent that held an unfavorable view of Paul. Now, those numbers have flipped, as 36 percent have a favorable view and 39 percent unfavorable.
There has been a troubling drop in die-hard fans of the iconoclastic senator. Paul started his presidential campaign with 20 percent of Kentucky voters expressing a “very favorable” view of him, but now just 9 percent hold such a strong impression of him.
After Kentucky’s elections, it’s unclear who the Democrats can tap for the race. Washington Democrats had reached out to Edelen, 40, to consider challenging Paul. His narrow loss doesn’t end his political career but it would be risky to run against Paul and have potentially back-to-back losses.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, 57, a former business executive, has been mentioned as a possible candidate.
By late January Paul will have to make a decision of some sort. That’s when the filing deadline hits for the Senate election, and if he truly believes he has a chance to win the Republican nomination, he will need to get another Republican to also qualify for the ballot because state law would not allow Paul to be on the presidential and Senate ballots in the general election.
If it reaches that point, some GOP insiders view that as the fish-or-cut-bait moment, because not getting another Republican on the ballot would be an admission that Paul does not expect to win the presidential nomination.
Because of his presidential focus, Paul is doing minimal fundraising for his Senate race, collecting $156,000 last quarter and ending with $1.4 million in the bank — less money than he started the quarter with.
He’s already shipped $1.4 million from his Senate campaign coffers to his presidential bid. Paul is legally forbidden from transferring money from a presidential bid to his Senate account, and national strategists are frankly more concerned that his White House bid will end up accruing debt that will require its own additional fundraising effort.
Despite this seeming vulnerability, Kentucky Democrats — for now — are not sure they have anyone to run in the Senate race.
“We’re a bit shell-shocked,” Stumbo, the Democratic state House speaker, said. “We’ve got to regroup.”