Libertarian-Republican’s New Kentucky Home

I predicted a few days ago that Kentucky’s Republican primary would be one to watch. The race is to fill the seat of outgoing Senator Jim Bunning. Bunning is known for two things. One is his stellar baseball career. He is one of eighteen players to ever pitch a perfect game (read: no opposing players ever got to base) and is currently 17th in total career strike-outs. The second thing he’s most noted for is being a reliable bag of crazy in the Senate.

His career got off to a less than auspicious start when he eked out a half of a percentage point win in 1998. That race was so nasty that former President Clinton made point of it in the interviews he conducted with Taylor Branch that eventually became part of Branch’s book The Clinton Tapes. Things got even worse in 2004, when Bunning ran a miserable campaign that ended up with him winning by just 1% when President Bush was swamping Bunning’s Senate colleague John Kerry by 20 points. Some of the lowlights of the campaign included: Bunning admitting that he only watched Fox News (great red meat for conservatives but probably not a good thing to tell reporters who are crafting a narrative on your race), comparing his opponent Dan Mongirado’s appearance to that of one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, and appearing via sattelite for a debate in which he relied on a teleprompter.

Therefore, it was of little surprise when word got out that Mitch McConnell and others were trying to have the “You ever think about not running, Jim?” conversation with Bunning. Indeed, top Republican even started preparing for a primary challenge if Bunning didn’t want to go quietly. Rather than just go out with a whimper, however, he went out with a bang, accusing McConnell of being a control freak, saying that one of his potential primary competitiors owed him money, kept up his intense focus on steroids in baseball while the economy crashed, and predicted that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead within nine months.

With lackluster funding and his approval at 28%, Bunning eventually got out, leaving McConnell’s pick Secretary of State Trey Grayson as the heir apparent. However, a funny thing happened on the way to Washington. Supporters of Ron Paul, whose firebrand libertarian-oriented campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 raised tons of cash and drew headlines while making little headway (though acute observers will note that he did come close to winning some little noticed contests and straw polls), were attempting to get Paul’s son Rand into the race. Rand had become somewhat of a darling of that wing of the party while on the stump for his dad in 2008. After Bunning stepped aside, Paul made his candidacy official on August 5th.

Again, most Republican insiders paid little attention. However, what they weren’t paying attention to was the groundswell on the internet, both in terms of money and support via social networking sites like Facebook. He currently has over 17k fans to Grayson’s more modest 5k. This is probably more of a testament to the Paulistas national spotlight on Paul, but no strategist would cast a negative light on that many potential supporters who very well may cross state lines to help Paul on the way to a primary win. On May 23rd, before Paul was even officially in the race (though he hinted he would get in if Bunning stayed out on May 1st), supporters raised $25k. On August 20th, another moneybomb raised over $400k.

Still, Grayson appeared the favorite. Then another funny thing happened. Word got out that the NRSC would host a fundraising event in DC for Grayson. That’s when Paul’s supporters got PISSED. They held a counter money-bomb that raised $186k for the campaign. This pushed the campaign over the million mark and meant real media attention for the campaign. On November 2nd, a poll came out showing Paul leading in the primary by 3 points. On November 4th, embarrassed over conservative reaction to this and their backing of Charlie Crist, NRSC Chair John Cornyn announced that the group would sit out contested Republican primaries, a move that was hailed by grassroots conservatives as allowing the people to decide (all the rage in our current populist moment).

Now, there’s further sign that big national attention is being graced on Dr. Paul (yes, he followed in his father’s footsteps in more way than one). From the New York Times (subscription required):

Representative Ron Paul proved to be a surprising presence in the presidential race in 2008. Now his son, Dr. Rand Paul, has become an unexpected contender in the 2010 Senate race in Kentucky.

Dr. Paul — an ophthalmologist and a son of the congressman, a Texas Republican and former presidential candidate — has become a serious challenger in the race to succeed Senator Jim Bunning.

Capitalizing on a hearty distrust of government and an anti-Republican-establishment fervor among conservatives, he has used the Internet to raise more than $1.3 million since he began his campaign in August.

“This primary is really about the future of our party,” said Dr. Paul, 46, who has lived in Kentucky since 1993 and has never run for public office before.

“The Republican platform specifically says we don’t believe in bailing out private business, and yet we did,” Dr. Paul said in a break between cataract operations. “The Republican platform also specifically says we don’t believe in government ownership of private businesses, and yet a lot of Republicans voted for that.”

As I’ve noted before, we’re seeing a new alliance forming between fiscal conservatives and straight up libertarian conservatives, combined with the interesting factor that many social conservatives are drawn to the Paul’s pro-life credentials. Will this continue all the way back to governance? Hard to say–one President already helped disintegrate that already shaky alliance. But a new one is bringing them right back together.

Paul’s race will be one to watch, as the primary seems to have quickly become nationalized beyond the borders of the sleepy commonwealth of Kentucky. This will be a curious race to watch, since Grayson isn’t exactly a Meg Whitman or Charlie Crist in terms of his politics. Still, this race will be a harbinger of things to come in terms of what issues will bring the party back to power and just what sort of candidate activists are seeking out to be their standard-bearer in 2012.

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