Rand Paul’s Kentucky Derby
Fancy Farm, Kentucky
I spent two weeks in my home state this summer trying to figure out how Rand Paul could overturn every imaginable convention of a populist Kentucky politician yet still lead the race for senator. After all, Paul rarely smiles, he often seems to be talking to himself when he gives a speech and he almost never backslaps another pol or shmoozes with regular voters. And Paul doesn't praise Kentucky or speak of its special place in American life. Kentuckians put a certain effort into believing their own kitsch—the derby, the bluegrass, the big blue moons—but Rand seems strangely indifferent to all that. As the Lexington Herald-Leader recently bemoaned, "A person who has 'lived' in Kentucky for 17 years might know how 'Bloody Harlan' [the county where the United Mine Workers fought a war with strikebreakers in 1932] got its name and that 'The Dukes of Hazzard' was set in the fictional Hazzard (two Z's) County, Georgia, not the Kentucky city of Hazard (one Z)."
Even if the 47-year-old Paul is not quite a carpetbagger—he moved to Bowling Green in 1993 and married Kelley Ashby, from nearby Russellville, soon after—there's little doubt that he's an insurgent. In the primary he beat lawyer and banking heir Trey Grayson, the handpicked protégé of Kentucky's longest-serving senator, minority leader Mitch McConnell, with more than 61 percent of the vote, largely thanks to his full-throated opposition to the bank bailouts McConnell helped engineer. Paul's best-known TV ad in the primary, "Machine," showed a computer-generated Capitol building putting out huge, pincer-armed tentacles that plunge into corporate logos like AIG's and slammed Grayson's acceptance of contributions from bailed-out firms.
Paul's general election opponent is Attorney General Jack Conway, 41, a big, handsome, self-financed and well-connected political insider who is often described as a young politician from central casting. In contrast to Paul, Conway, who co-owns Stately Victor, the thoroughbred that placed eighth in last year's Kentucky Derby, often seems to want to do everything by the book: he shakes hands, smiles like he's visiting the orthodontist and pays court to every county kingpin he can find—yet without quite erasing his natural air of nervous arrogance.
The race has scrambled the politics of the two parties. Conway says he would have voted for the Iraq War, while Paul says he would have voted against it; Conway supports the Patriot Act, while Paul has criticized it as an "overreach"; Conway crusades against marijuana, calling it a "gateway drug," while Paul has said that ten- and twenty-year sentences for possession are too harsh—a mildly countercultural stance that was only highlighted by a GQ article depicting the college-age Rand as a pot-smoking, girl-hazing, Christian-mocking devotee of the "Aqua Buddha." Worst of all, Conway says he would gladly extend the Bush tax cuts for the very rich for "five, eight, maybe ten" years—a position thoroughly in sync with Paul's anti-tax crusade.
It's tempting to tag Paul as some kind of three-legged dog called a "libertarian" who will lead a Tea Party–infused revival of the GOP by replacing evangelical fundamentalism with free- market fundamentalism. But that doesn't quite ring true. For one thing, to win the Senate seat Paul will need the support of Kentucky's Republican elite and the party's evangelical base. Since winning the primary in May, Paul has thrown himself on McConnell like a penitent on the altar. Paul took the minority leader's advice and stiff-armed all local and national press (except Fox News), and has struggled to stay in step on rabble-rousing issues like the "Ground Zero mosque." And after some hemming and hawing, Rand has said that if elected, he will vote for McConnell as leader.
So which kind of Republican is Rand Paul really? Or perhaps the answer to that question is another: What kind of Republican has a future in Kentucky—or anywhere?