Rand Paul’s Kentucky Derby

Rand Paul’s Kentucky Derby

The Tea Party favorite is in a race to stitch together a statewide Republican coalition.


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?

The first time I saw Rand Paul speak to an all-Republican audience was the Friday night before the Fancy Farm church picnic, the traditional opening of Kentucky’s general election season. Paul was to appear before about 150 people at the sixth annual GOP fundraising dinner in the Calvert City Community Center, near Paducah; he would be the pièce de résistance of a night of speeches by Republican candidates for offices ranging from county commissioner to governor. While we waited for the speeches to begin, I sat at a folding table with Phil Moffett, a Louisville businessman and gubernatorial hopeful, eating ham sandwiches and baked beans, along with six or seven women.

Some were newcomers who had never been politically active before; others were old-line GOP, not so different from my mom, who left the Dems for Richard Nixon. You could spot the strain. When conversation about the time Barney Fife tried to make himself taller by pulling on his chin with a noose looped over a coat hook led naturally to talk of "chiropracty," and one of the younger women offered that she had been thrown from a truck during a "domestic violence incident," several of the older ladies seemed to close a third eyelid. Moffett, who pioneered a program to give religious school scholarships to disadvantaged kids in the public system, excused himself and left.

Like the Tea Party itself, these folks know what they’re against—it’s what they are for that seems to be shifting. When I noticed that Paul and his staff (including the only black person in the room) had quietly taken their seats at their own table, I asked one of the newly minted Republicans seated next to me if Rand was the reason she was here, and she surprised me. "Not really. We’re here tonight to hear Lynn Bechler [candidate for 4th District State Representative], who we just love. But we got involved because, you know, you just have to, what with all that’s goin’ on in Washington. We have to save America."

The speakers before Paul all worked to soothe the stitching left from the last time the party reached out, in the 1990s, when evangelical Christians seized the grassroots—a transformation managed in large part by McConnell, beginning in 1984. Then as now, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Kentucky by two to one, and most state and local offices were held by Dems. But McConnell started turning the state’s Congressional delegation red with his first Senate race, against Walter "Dee" Huddleston, winning on the strength of a funny ad attacking the incumbent’s attendance record by showing a farmer in overalls trailing two bloodhounds asking, "Where’s Dee?" Roger Ailes, now chief of Fox News, produced the spot, and McConnell became the first Republican sent to the Senate from Kentucky since 1968.

But it was very close, just four-tenths of a point. By 1990, when popular Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane challenged for the seat, McConnell had the Christians on board. "I had the editorial support of the Courier-Journal and strong support among Democrats in the cities," says Sloane, a doctor who now runs the Eurasian Medical Education Program, which helps deliver medical care to patients with HIV and other diseases in Russia. "But when I went out into the state I found Mitch had wired all the churches together. There was nothing I could do."

McConnell was supposed to get this network behind Grayson’s bid for the GOP nomination, but Paul’s ability to talk about economic unfairness gave him the edge. But now, in the general, he finds himself relying on the same base. When the top Republican in Frankfort, State Senate leader David Williams, introduces Paul by saying, "Government should serve the people the way we worship God, at the foot of the cross," everybody applauds like he’s praising the sun for shining.

But Rand Paul doesn’t genuflect to his audiences, any more than he does at the foot of the cross. Paul starts out his speech quoting Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot and then moves on to Abe Lincoln. He does not so much as paraphrase God until the very end, when he asks His blessing on America. He denounces taxes, but he also doubles down on his call for agriculture cuts (in a state that depends on $250 million annually in federal farm supports), because we’ve "got to look at everything." He wonders darkly about the "enumerated powers" allowed Congress by the Constitution, complains about Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and says all Congress members should be required to read every sentence in every bill before they vote on it. To no one’s surprise, he lambastes the bailouts, which "reward inefficient and corrupt management" and "threaten…to destroy our US dollar." Though the speech is entirely secular in theme and given in a professorial, matter-of-fact tone, a man in the back row keeps yelling, "That’s right!" and "Tell it!"

I was impressed—who doesn’t think somebody ought to be punished for those damn bailouts? Paul gave the speech without notes, calmly, almost as if he did not see his audience. He’s like a dad who’s scariest when he talks softly—Paul’s rhetoric blows on the cold ember of an anger bitterly remembered.

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).

The Tea Partyers may simply have no foothold in this corner of Kentucky, but it’s more likely that the Shirley Sherrod/NAACP video-clip scam, which had been exposed a few weeks before the picnic, withered their self-confidence. Certainly Paul, with his neatly groomed black aide, was sending no Andrew Breitbart–type signals. The night before at Calvert City, a couple of newly active Republicans told me they had named their upcoming mid-August demonstration in nearby Marion the Grassroots Conservative Rally because they did not "want to be associated" with the Tea Party. One said, "You know what the media is saying about them, making them appear to be…" and she mouthed the word "racist."

Moreover, we’re not talking about a youth movement here. Most of the Paulites at Fancy Farm were like Rich and Rosie, a middle-aged radiologist and his wife, who moved from Louisville to Bowling Green thirty years ago, where they befriended Paul. They were here to support their guy, whom they spoke of with real affection; but it was 94 degrees in the shade, and their days of yelling like Wildcat fans were long past.

So when McConnell got booed all through his speech (worse than any other speaker), maybe it was the heat that delivered only flagging support from his side. Not that Mitch seemed bothered by that—keeping a tight little smile, he nodded to the cheers that his assaults on "Obama, Pelosi and Reid" generated and quickly sat down. Then Jack Conway, who’d won the toss, actually delivered the sort of speech expected of these events, getting a call-and-response rhythm going based on Rand Paul’s defense of BP, ending with the call, "What did Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party say when Rand Paul won the primary?" "Accidents happen!"

Finally, Paul took the podium. After his performance the night before, you might have expected a laconic putdown of Conway’s bellowed speech—but no. Paul started with a count of the pages in the federal tax code. He read his speech like it was a telegram, one sent from someplace far out of state and filled with words like "exponentially." When it was over, he skedaddled off the stage and into his waiting SUV without so much as a word to a single picnicker, trailing a desperate wake of reporters who couldn’t catch his eye either.

To add insult to injury, three days later Paul went on Sean Hannity’s radio show to suggest that Fancy Farm was a "wild picnic" where he and other politicians were afraid someone might "throw beer on us"—even though St. Jerome Catholic Church forbids alcohol and the county is dry. Paul apologized within hours, but his snub was statewide news.

But even if Rand were to personally insult every Kentuckian he meets every day until election day, it may not make any difference at all here. That’s how poisoned the chalice George Bush handed to Obama was: with the bank bailout, the government put itself on the side of the people who are foreclosing on all the homes down here, and anybody on that side can go to hell. I have seen the way people put their hands in their pockets and look away when I lamely tell them I was born down here but moved to New York City thirty years ago. Strangling me would be impolite. "You were bailed out then, wasn’t you?" a retired guard from the Eddyville State Prison said to me at Fancy Farm. "How nice for y’all."

It’s not as if Kentuckians don’t know what Washington can do—you can see the Kentucky Lakes from outer space, for God’s sake. The first question for any Democrat has to be, Why has the government done so little about unemployment and restoring consumer confidence? Maybe Jack Conway can answer that better in the next two months than my brief experience of him on the stump showed. Or, as Conway evidently hopes, maybe Rand will order a Jack Daniel’s and call it bourbon, or set fire to the Daniel Boone National Forest.

If not, it’s like the Republican primary never ended, in a way. There are still two Republicans fighting it out: one young, native-born, rich and (this time) a handsome lawyer, and one a quirky outsider pushing economic fundamentalism. We know how that race turned out the first time.

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