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Kentucky Voters Prepare for Heated Senate Primaries on the Left and Right

May 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Voters on both sides of the aisle are preparing to cast ballots in Kentucky's two Senate primary contests. Jim Lehrer talks to reporter Joseph Gerth of the Louisville Courier-Journal for a look ahead at Tuesday's election.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: some 2010 politics.

Four states will hold primaries tomorrow, including Kentucky, where voters from both parties will choose Senate nominees. The Republican race has drawn the most attention, nationally, as well as in Kentucky itself.

There are six candidates on the ballot, with surveys putting ophthalmologist Rand Paul ahead of Secretary of State Trey Grayson by double digits.

Here’s an excerpt from last week’s Republican debate that aired on Kentucky Educational Television.

BILL GOODMAN, host, “Kentucky Tonight”: Philosophically are you, Mr. Paul and Mr. Grayson, in agreement on the — some of the areas that — that you espoused? And did you too, Mr. Paul. There is certainly agreement, but there is disagreement. Where is that disagreement?

RAND PAUL, R, Kentucky Senatorial candidate: Well, I would say that, you know, for example, I have said I won’t vote for any budget that’s not bald, Republican or Democrat. Trey said that that he impractical and talks about a 10 year plan to balance the budget.

I think we have had too many career politicians come in with 10-year plans, 50-year plans. I think that is essentially admitting defeat before we start.

So, I think we really do have to do something about it. The interest alone on the debt, $383 billion this year, is more than we will spend on all the roads in the United States. The deficit is consuming us. And, if interest rates rise, we could well be in a debt crisis like Greece is in now.

BILL GOODMAN: Mr. Grayson, do you disagree with him about that?

TREY GRAYSON, R, Kentucky Senatorial candidate: No, I think we — we need agree that we need a balanced budget. We both agree on a balanced budget amendment.

We both agree that the bailouts were bad ideas. Where we have a big disagreement is, on national security, for example, I support the Patriot Act, and he doesn’t. He thinks nuclear that a Iran is not a threat to our national security. I think it is.

He — in the economic area, he alluded to my comments about a balanced budget. My comment was, in year one, going from a $1.4 trillion budget deficit to zero in one year isn’t practical. And I want to be a part of a solution. And whether it’s doing it over a couple of years, I think that’s a more practical approach.

It will result in a balanced budget. I don’t think starting from the get-go saying, I will never vote that way, is ever going to be a part of a coalition that will get us closer together. I think that is the kind of guy who is going to go and have a press conference and talk about stuff. And I want to actually get things done.

JIM LEHRER: More now from Joseph Gerth, who covers politics for The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Joseph Gerth, welcome.

JOSEPH GERTH, The Louisville Courier-Journal: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Paul has a big lead now, at least in the polls, but it didn’t start that way, did it?

JOSEPH GERTH: No. A year ago, he was kind of a novelty almost. You know, he is the son of U.S. representative Ron Paul of Texas, 2008 presidential candidate, and nobody gave him much chance, with his somewhat libertarian views.

JIM LEHRER: Mm-hmm.

JOSEPH GERTH: But he — for — using his dad’s campaign financing network and getting the support of the Tea Party, he’s made himself a player and has really — really taken this race by storm.

JIM LEHRER: You say the — did the Tea Party make a big — is that what has made the difference here for him?

JOSEPH GERTH: I think, in part, it was that. In large part, it was probably that, because, you know, he does agree with the Tea Party on the issues of smaller government. He believes that they — the Congress should be limited to the 17 enumerated powers in the Constitution, which are things that the Tea Party loves.

We — we have had some very big Tea Party rallies here in Kentucky over the past year, year-and-a-half. And it seems to be making a difference here.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Trey Grayson, of course, was the — quote — “establishment candidate,” correct?

JOSEPH GERTH: That’s right. And he has not run from that. He is opposed to term limits. He is in favor of earmarks.

He has run an ad with Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has endorsed him in this race. And he hasn’t had anywhere to go to the right. So, he has kind of stayed midcourse and accepted that role as the establishment candidate.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now, as you know, Joseph, people outside are now — now portraying this race as some kind of referendum on Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, because he did endorse Grayson. Is that — is that a fair way to look at this?

JOSEPH GERTH: You know, to some degree, it is.

McConnell, for years, has helped pick candidates, Republican candidates, here in Kentucky. And, for years, he has angered some Republicans by doing that, going back a dozen or more years. And, so, there may be a bit of McConnell fatigue out there.

But, at the same time, McConnell didn’t jump with both feet into this race until late, after the die was already cast, and Paul was leading in polls by 15 percent. So, it may be a bit of an overstatement to call it a referendum on McConnell.

JIM LEHRER: What — what really separates the — we saw the little piece of the debate, but what — what really separates these two guys?

JOSEPH GERTH: It’s — I think, largely, what it is, more than anything, is just this idea that Paul is the outsider. He’s not part of the establishment. He’s not part of the problem that brought us bailouts and not part of the — part of the — what has gone on in Washington with health care reform. He is completely from the outside.

And while — while Grayson is not an insider in that respect, he has the support of the establishment. He has been in office now for seven years, and he is almost viewed as the incumbent.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, even though he isn’t. He’s a — he was secretary of state. He was a state…

JOSEPH GERTH: Right.

JIM LEHRER: He held state office — been holding state office, but he is viewed as an incumbent for political purposes at this point; is that correct?

JOSEPH GERTH: Yes. Yes, that’s pretty — pretty correct, yes.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Now, characterize the Democratic side. They haven’t got as much attention as the Republicans, but describe that part of the race.

JOSEPH GERTH: It is actually a more interesting race, at least for me right now, because polls show that it is very, very tight.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo has a slight lead in the polls that we’re seeing these days. Attorney General Jack Conway is his main competitor. There are three other candidates in the race who aren’t expected to get more than 5 percent or 7 percent of the vote.

But it’s — it’s been interesting, in that this has largely been a race that Mongiardo has framed as the rural vs. urban, the haves vs. the have-nots. I mean, he has done a pretty good job in doing that. He now is up in the polls. But Conway, who has been better financed than Mongiardo, has been making a late push here. And so we will see on — we will see tomorrow just exactly how much that money has bought.

JIM LEHRER: What does — is there any way to look ahead to November to see what might happen?

JOSEPH GERTH: You know, we…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

JOSEPH GERTH: We have been seeing some poll numbers. My newspaper has not done any polls on the November race yet. But we have been seeing some poll numbers that indicate that the Democrats would do better against Paul than they would against Grayson. But, at the same time, either Paul or Grayson has a lead in that race right now.

JIM LEHRER: Neither one does; is that what you are saying?

JOSEPH GERTH: Well, either Paul or Grayson has the lead, but the Democrats do better against — against Paul.

JIM LEHRER: In general, finally, how would you characterize the state politically right now? Is it possible to even do so?

JOSEPH GERTH: Yes. Yes.

I mean, we are a Democratic state that votes Republican in national elections. Kentucky is about 60 percent Democrat by registration. But, if you look at the fact that, for the past 12 years, we have had two Republicans in the Senate, that — that four of our six members of Congress are Republicans, it’s a — it’s a state that, traditionally, has been Democratic, but is trending more and more to the Republican Party all the time.

JIM LEHRER: So would it be correct to put Kentucky on the list as a state to watch very carefully come November, right?

JOSEPH GERTH: Yes, I think so, yes.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Joseph Gerth, thank you very much.

JOSEPH GERTH: Thank you.