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Kentucky Senate Race Tests Tea Party Clout

October 7, 2010 at 5:12 PM EDT
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Tea party favorite Rand Paul is battling Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway to be the state's next U.S. Senator. What does the race say about voter anger in the 2010 midterms? Gwen Ifill reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to campaign politics, as we travel to Kentucky, where voter dissatisfaction with Washington is front and center in the state’s Senate race.

Gwen Ifill has our report, part of the NewsHour’s Vote 2010 coverage.

GWEN IFILL: In Kentucky, the Tea Party has a face.

RAND PAUL (R-KY),Senatorial Candidate: Do we have some momentum for November?


GWEN IFILL: Its name is Rand Paul, an eye doctor from Bowling Green whose father, Ron Paul, is a libertarian Republican congressman from Texas.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX): Tonight, I’m going to make a prediction. Rand Paul is going to be the next senator from Kentucky.


GWEN IFILL: The Democrat vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Jim Bunning is Attorney General Jack Conway. Both men are running hard.

JACK CONWAY (D-KY),Senatorial Candidate: It’s now a ground game, and, with you on the phones, we’re going to win this election.

GWEN IFILL: Kentucky, the home of bluegrass, bourbon, baseball bats, and the world’s most famous horse race, has a political one on its hands this year, two mild-mannered candidate, two vigorous television ad campaigns.

NARRATOR: Whose horse is Jack Conway riding? When the U.S. Senate debated a government takeover of health care, Conway supported it. Jack Conway, he’s not riding Kentucky’s horse.

MAN: Rand Paul wants us to pay $2,000 just to get Medicare?

WOMAN: That’s crazy. I can’t afford that.

RAND PAUL: The real answer to Medicare will be a $2,000 deductible.

MAN: I don’t know what planet he’s from.

GWEN IFILL: In many ways, Kentucky is the perfect place to test Tea Party strength. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans here by a healthy margin. Yet, Barack Obama lost to John McCain in 2008 by more than 16 points.

So, both Senate candidates are going after conservative Democrats, Jack Conway by going after Rand Paul, and Rand Paul by going after Barack Obama. He even started airing an ad this week using an Obama impersonator. All you can see are his hands.

ACTOR: I need Conway in Washington, because I know I can count on Conway to vote for more spending and debt, bigger government and higher taxes.


ACTOR: There he is now, Mr. Jack Conway. Now, there’s a guy I can work with in Washington.

RAND PAUL: I’m Rand Paul, and I approve this message.

I would like to thank the one person who has made this election juggernaut possible this year. It’s the guy in the White House who is wrong on every…


GWEN IFILL: Wrong, Paul says, on government programs, from disability regulations to education spending, from Medicare to Medicaid.

RAND PAUL: Over half of the births in Kentucky are to Medicaid right now. Half the people in Kentucky are not poor. We have made it too easy. Let’s not have intergenerational welfare.

GWEN IFILL: Paul’s numbers are off. State statistics show Medicaid births at 37 percent in 2009, and the disabled also qualify for Medicaid. But the underlying message strikes a chord.

KATHY GORNIK, business owner: Our country has gotten very out of whack. As you can imagine, I might feel, as a business owner, we create wealth, as opposed to being on the dole, where they have to confiscate money from those who produce wealth, like myself, and then redistribute it to other people.

GWEN IFILL: Among Conway’s challenges, raising questions about Paul without appearing to attack Kentucky voters.

JACK CONWAY: Look, I don’t disparage the Tea Party. A lot of people talk about the Tea Party. The Tea Party is an expression of Americans’ concern about spending. And I think that’s legitimate. I think that’s legitimate. Now, I don’t think Rand Paul’s candidacy is legitimate when he comes out and says the things he does.

GWEN IFILL: As the polls have tightened, national Democrats have begun pitching in to pay for ads that depict Paul as the outsider.

NARRATOR: Rand Paul may get around, but he doesn’t get Kentucky. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

GWEN IFILL: Conway tries to drive that same point home on the campaign trail.

JACK CONWAY: He doesn’t share our values. He doesn’t share our values. He just doesn’t share our values.

GWEN IFILL: At a northern Kentucky hotel last weekend, Tea Party activists from throughout the region were plotting campaign strategy.

BEKA ROMM, American Majority: Talk radio can be huge for helping (INAUDIBLE) candidates get what they need without having to pay for it.

GWEN IFILL: Conway’s name never came up.

CATHY FLAIG, president, Northern Kentucky Tea Party: Rand Paul will win in November, and the establishment will be set back on their heels, and they will — the established Republicans will look around and say, wow. We didn’t know this was coming.

GWEN IFILL: Blindsiding Republicans, as well as Democrats, is just fine by Paul.

RAND PAUL: Part of my reason for running for office is, is that it’s not just that I think we need another Republican. I think we need reform of the whole system.

GWEN IFILL: We caught up with Paul, who avoids most reporters’ questions, as he left a Chamber of Commerce meeting.

So, what does that mean? What does that say?

RAND PAUL: I think the issues are more important than the party, and that I think often we get distracted by getting too partisan. I don’t see people who are Democrats as always being wrong or Republicans as always being right.

And I think there has to be compromise on the budget. And, in order to address the deficit, the only compromise that I think we can have is that you have to look at the whole budget. We have always excluded the military and said, we’re not going to cut the military, or the Democrats exclude the social and domestic welfare spending.

Everything has to be on the table. We have to do this intelligently. We can’t make it a political football that, oh, he’s going to cut Social Security. I’m not going to cut the Social Security. But, for the future, we have to figure out how to do this, and we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again.

GWEN IFILL: But the other Republicans say, but that’s not what we’re going to — you’re — you’re naive; you’re moving too fast.

What do you say to them?

RAND PAUL: I think there’s going to be a lot of new Republicans coming up there. And, so, we’re hoping that the caucus has a much — maybe a different mixture of folks.

GWEN IFILL: A little more edge perhaps?

RAND PAUL: Maybe. Maybe. I hope so.

GWEN IFILL: Mainstream Republicans have reluctantly embraced Paul. Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who Paul defeated in the primary, has endorsed him, but still has misgivings.

TREY GRAYSON (R), Kentucky Secretary of State: An argument I tried to make in the primary, which I didn’t succeed, was that we still need a role for government. It just has to be reduced. It will be interesting when the reality and the rhetoric collide when we get to Washington, because governing is hard. It’s really hard.

GWEN IFILL: But other Republicans, including Northern Kentucky Congressman Geoff Davis, say candidates like Paul are only the tip of a conservative iceberg.

REP. GEOFF DAVIS (R-KY): We’re seeing a generation rising up now across this country, an arc from the Mississippi River Valley all the way up through the Ohio Valley, down into the east-central part of the United States, where very significant numbers of conservatives of all stripes are coming out to vote.

GWEN IFILL: And Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator who has been traveling the country on behalf of Tea Party candidates, tells audiences, ideological purity is more important than party loyalty.

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R-SC): I would rather have 40 Republicans who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who believe in nothing at all.


SEN. JIM DEMINT: I know what numbers without principles can do.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on some of their voters to go to the polls to vote against Paul, as much as for Conway.

MARY CARPENTER, voter, Kentucky: I live in Anchorage, Kentucky, which is an eastern suburb of Louisville, and I am surrounded by Tea Party supporters. And they’re quite vocal, and, frankly, quite frightening.

JUDY PAYNE, voter, Kentucky: Rand Paul scares me. I do consider both parties every time I vote. I wouldn’t vote for Rand Paul even if I weren’t as convinced by Jack Conway.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, some Democrats are uneasy. This man complained directly to his candidate at a Sunday afternoon meeting for Conway volunteers.

STEVEN HICKOCK, voter, Kentucky: And it has to be beyond the sophomoric political pabulum that’s been pushed out.

JACK CONWAY: I appreciate that point. And we will do that. We’re telling the voters of Kentucky in many different ways about what I have done as A.G.

GWEN IFILL: And it didn’t take much to start a debate between these two men at an outdoor festival in Louisville.

KARL CAMPBELL, voter, Kentucky: I have to make a decision based on those sound bites that I hear on the radio, see on TV for five minutes before I go to sleep at 11:00 at night and what my co-workers…

JIM MARQUART, voter, Kentucky: Before you get up at 5:00 in the morning.

KARL CAMPBELL: … 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. And just not enough time, because the issues are deep, and they’re long. And if you’re taking a five-second perspective based on what my neighbor is doing across the street, or, hey, I like the colors on that banner…

JIM MARQUART: You know, I’m 76. I’m retired. And I hardly have time in my day.

GWEN IFILL: Can I just say something? You guys both sound frustrated to me.


KARL CAMPBELL: Yes, yes, yes.


GWEN IFILL: In a way, both Conway and Paul are counting on that frustration.

RAND PAUL: We were out in the eastern part of the state, and we didn’t meet one person who agrees with the federal takeover of health care. We don’t agree with the president on Obamacare.

JACK CONWAY: I get it. I mean, I get that anger. I think the question is, how are — how do people want to channel that anger? Do they want to be destructive or do they want to be constructive?

I would like to be a different kind of Democrat, who maybe — maybe not so much partisan fighting. Let’s actually try to get something done.

GWEN IFILL: Paul and Conway met in their first debate Sunday, and will face off four more times in the next four weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: We will look at Senate contests in Florida, Nevada, and California in the coming weeks.