Rand Paul’s Kentucky Derby
The problem with being angry about those bailouts is, of course, that every one was carried through the Senate by McConnell. However much the issue worked for Rand in the past, now Kentucky's Republican Party wants to come together and run on God, gays and guns—so much so that they sometimes seemed not to hear what they were applauding. Joe Gerth, the political writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal, told me he once quoted Paul verbatim saying he was personally opposed to abortion but wasn't sure it should be made entirely illegal. In turn Gerth got dozens of e-mails asking why he was "misrepresenting" Paul: every angry respondent "knew" Paul was categorically opposed to abortion.
During the primary, Rand Paul was calling on sinners to repent, or as he puts it, "fighting for the soul of the Republican Party." But where will he find the Kentucky Republicans he needs in the general if his solution is to blame their leader's vision and to bring home less from Washington in hard times?
Kentucky politics has forever been divided between the three cities (Louisville, Lexington and Covington, a suburb of Cincinnati) and everywhere else. In all the early polls, Jack Conway leads Rand Paul only in Lexington and his hometown, Louisville (though he comes close in the coal-mining eastern mountains). Everywhere else is Republican.
But the real estate that matters most to Paul's campaign is neither big city nor rural; it's in between—the outer suburbs, those wide bands of once-cheap farmland strung together by six-lane "service roads" running parallel to strip malls dotted with Applebee's, Anne Taylor outlets and GameStops, here and there punctuated by subdivision entrances. Bowling Green is ringed by a particularly dense belt of exurbs; Hurstbourne Lane, which runs by Conway's Louisville headquarters, is another such strip. These places are filled with people who have fled the old dichotomies between city and country for what is now an economically uneasy compromise. A recent report in the Courier-Journal identified a half-dozen area developments that were facing millions of dollars in foreclosure suits; some lots that were worth $82,000 a couple of years ago are now worth half that.
There are row houses and '60s-style ranch houses with backyards but also hundreds of multiacre lots that are not quite farms but don't have neighbors, either. These subdivisions are energy sinkholes—Lexington metro, for example, has the worst carbon footprint per capita of any US city. There are no general-interest newspapers out there, no museums, not even many movie theaters—that's what big-screen TVs are for. Yet this is where most consumer activity takes place and where most political fundraising is done. The people who live in such developments (hardly unique to Kentucky, of course) hail not so much from this or that state as from SimCity, or maybe World of Warcraft.
Take Matt Grant, 24, who lives in Okolona, a southern suburb of Louisville out toward Fort Knox. Grant works for the Geek Squad at Best Buy, where he first heard about Paul from his co-workers. He doesn't read newspapers or watch much cable TV: it was Rand Paul's Facebook page that made him a convert.
"The page doesn't just give me information about the campaign," Grant says. "It also connects me to other people who feel similarly to myself.... But basically, I like the message about self-reliance. The way he says over and over that the government ought to be a referee, but never a participant, in the economy.... I think that's what this country is all about."
Matt went to Evangel Christian School, a K-12 school run by the Evangel World Prayer Center, a Pentecostal megachurch. No matter what critics say about these huge churches, you have to give them this: unlike government programs, higher education, paid media or any other sector of the culture (except the Internet and, well, shopping itself), megachurches have at least met the scale of contemporary life. America has twice as many citizens as it did fifty years ago, yet still only one Harvard; but today, most towns of any size have a megachurch with at least one more space in its parking lot for you.
But hard times have hit religion, too. Southeast Christian, the largest Louisville megachurch, canceled its Easter pageant this year to save money. Many have begun debt-counseling programs for their congregants. Yet they still preach a kind of Republicanism that continues to shape Kentucky politics.
Let's put this into context. Coal mining, for example, is one of Kentucky's biggest industries, and the decision by a coalition of mine owners, under Citizens United rules, to fund Paul's campaign and work against Conway made big news in July. (Rand reciprocated, saying of mountaintop removal, "We're not talking about Mt. Everest. We're talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here.") Coal miners are icons of the Kentucky way of life, especially in places like Harlan County, where the hot new TV series Justified is set. There are 18,000 unionized coal miners in Kentucky.
But Southeast Christian alone has 19,000 members. And Matt Grant is no coal miner. His dream would be moving to Minnesota to work at Best Buy's corporate headquarters. He studies nights to get his MBA at the University of Louisville, and lumps Bush and Obama together for overplaying "failed government solutions."
He adds a last thought. "It's probably good that someone from Kentucky is in the leadership, but Mitch McConnell has been there an awful long time."
It was this anti-establishment mood that the national press expected to see at the 130th annual Fancy Farm picnic at St. Jerome Catholic Church. Fancy Farm is the political version of a high school basketball game, where the speaker throws red meat (hopefully funny red meat) while outshouting his hecklers, as we imagine William Jennings Bryan once did. Alben Barkley, a Kentucky legend and Harry Truman's veep from 1949 to 1953, put Fancy Farm on the map in the '30s by using the picnic to debate the New Deal. Few other states were quite so powerfully transformed by FDR's response to the Great Depression as Kentucky was, and for decades Fancy Farm was thought to be a Democratic institution where unionized workers—holding jobs created by the Tennessee Valley Authority's largest project, the Kentucky Lakes, not twenty minutes away from Fancy Farm—came to shout down Republicans.
This year the press was anticipating a Tea Party auto-da-fé, the Rand Paul crazies on the march. With a low black population (just 7 percent), Kentucky would put America's white tribe on display. How mad were they?
What they saw was something else. All the trimmings were as expected: a sunny day for barbecue and fried chicken, followed by homemade desserts; Abe Lincoln and George Washington impersonators, joined by a guy wearing skins and carrying a big plastic club labeled "NeanderPaul." Conway folks filled the floor before the podium and most of the bleachers to its left, Republicans the bleachers on the right, with a small but definite advantage in numbers going to the Dems. Most glaring in its absence was Paul's vaunted army of pissed-off Tea Partyers. I counted one pro–Tea Party sign and at least three against (Crack Open the Tea Party, It’s Full of Nuts).