One year ago this week, his presidential campaign crashing, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul decided he had to take down the man most responsible (other than himself) for his crash: Donald Trump, who had surprisingly taken the lead, partly by stealing the tea-party outsider vote that Paul thought he had secured.
In the first GOP debate, Paul went after Trump at the first opportunity, and later he asked reporters, “Are we going to fix the country simply through bombast and empty blather?”
Paul presumed, or at least hoped, that most Republican voters would see Trump as the modern mountebank that he is. You could argue that they did see him that way, based on the vote totals in the primaries. But Trump didn’t have to win a majority of votes, just a plurality, to get a majority of convention delegates and the nomination.
And Paul? After a first-debate whipping from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the senator fell below 5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, and stayed there, suffering occasional insults from Trump. After getting only 4.5 percent of the Iowa caucus vote, he quit and refocused on his campaign for a second six-year term in the Senate.
Paul is the favorite in the race with Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. They will have their first face-off Saturday, during the political speaking at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Western Kentucky.
Gray’s uphill battle has grown more so since late January, when Paul was still in the presidential race, partly because Paul has an unexpected asset: his old adversary Trump.
It’s a three-legged stool:
First, it’s clear from primary results and polling that Trump has energized most of the Republican base vote that is primarily motivated by dislike for President Obama, who is highly unpopular in Kentucky. Republicans are already wrapping Obama and Hillary Clinton around Gray’s neck.
Second, Trump has made such a television circus of the presidential race that it is likely to keep sucking up most of the political talk time in Kentucky, even though the state won’t be contested. That will deny Gray the attention his campaign badly needs.
In 1984, another Kentucky urbanite needing attention for his challenge to a Senate incumbent found a way to get it, with an idea from then-consultant Roger Ailes. Republican Mitch McConnell ran commercials with hounds looking for Democrat Dee Huddleston, who had missed a few votes to make speeches for pay. That made voters consider the rest of his record, and he lost narrowly amid a Ronald Reagan landslide.
This year, Gray could try to capitalize on voter unhappiness with Paul’s presidential bid, which kept him away from Kentucky for much of 2015, and his indication that he plans to make another presidential run in 2020, treating the Senate as a stepping stone or consolation prize. But this year, Gray will be on the opposite side of a Kentucky presidential landslide.
Third, Trump’s outrageous statements, too numerous to list here, have lowered the bar for weirdness from politicians. That helps Paul, because he has taken many unusual positions and made many unusual statements Gray could exploit.
Most of us remember Paul more or less saying in 2010 that he wouldn’t have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of its impact on private businesses. That later-retracted comment reflected his underlying libertarian philosophy, perhaps most extremely reflected by a 2002 comment on KET: “We need to get insurance out of the way and let the consumer interact with their doctor the way they did basically before World War II.”
In 2009, speaking as a Senate candidate and ophthalmologist as Congress was debating Obamacare, he said, “If you think you have the right to health care, you are saying basically that I am your slave.”
He used the slavery concept again in Iowa last July: “If we tax you at 50 percent you are half slave, half free. I frankly would like to see you a little freer and a little more money remaining in your communities so you can create jobs.” No one really likes taxes, but how many people feel enslaved by them?
In May 2015, in a Senate floor speech against the government’s collection of bulk metadata, he said, “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.” That sort of narcissism rivaled Trump’s, and Paul was on the losing side of the issue.
Gray may resurrect those statements and more, but voters who have heard Trump saying unusual, outrageous and offensive things for more than a year have become inured to such remarks and are probably more likely to forgive Paul for his own. After all, they did in 2010.
Just as Trump is helping Paul, so is he likely to help Republican candidates running for the state House, which collectively create the most contested and important election in Kentucky this fall. Republicans need to gain four seats to take over the House and complete the Republican takeover of state government. Most key races are largely in rural districts where Trump did well in the caucuses.
Trump’s role was illustrated this week in what could be the pivotal race, for retiring Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs’s open 94th District seat in Letcher County and part of Pike County. Republican nominee Frank Justice Jr. ran an ad in the Appalachian News-Express and The Mountain Eagle showing him shaking hands with Trump and endorsing him. Democrat Angie Hatton may be a better campaigner, but a flood of Republican money will tar her with the anti-coal policies of Obama and Clinton.
Democrats hope to run against Gov. Matt Bevin and his cuts to education and health care. It was interesting to see Hatton and House Speaker Greg Stumbo campaigning in the area last week with Gray, whose candidacy didn’t seem to excite Stumbo when Gray announced in January. Perhaps Stumbo and crew know the potential for a Republican wave that would sweep him from his perch, and are observing Benjamin Franklin’s motto that they must hang together or they will hang separately. The Republican nooses are ready.
Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism based at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.