Patchwork Nation: A Closer Look at Rand Paul’s November Prospects

BY Jason M. Breslow  May 24, 2010 at 11:23 AM EDT

Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Senate primary was hailed as the first victory for a true tea party candidate. In his victory speech, Paul himself announced he was coming to “take Washington back.”

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul by flickr.com/gageskidmore/

But a primary is not a general election and the candidate’s recent spate of statements on topics ranging from civil rights to the oil company BP has raised questions about his chances for the fall. Some believe Paul’s more libertarian views on those issues may be too far out of the mainstream to win in November.

Looking at Paul’s win and the coming race using Patchwork Nation’s 12 community types, one county type stands out as critical: the growing, diversifying Boom Towns. There are a dozen of those counties in Kentucky, they hold close to one quarter of the population and they lean Republican.

But “leans Republican” can mean a lot of things – people side with the GOP for a number of reasons from cultural and economic ones to specific issues. And particularly in 2010 when the first true “tea party candidate” is the subject in question, voters in the Boom Towns may be looking a little closer at the ophthalmologist from Bowling Green.

Boom Town Elephants

The nation’s Boom Town counties have changed a lot since 2000. They have grown and diversified – and consequently many took a hit in the housing crash. And they are places where the Republican roots are firm, even if they are not deeply planted in the soil, full of young families living in more sprawling exurban environments.

In 2008, when the country shifted to vote for Democrat Barack Obama, the Boom Towns moved toward the Democratic Party, but not enough to swing to Mr. Obama. John McCain still carried these counties by 5 percent.

And this is true in Kentucky, too. President Obama won only one Boom Town county in the Bluegrass State in 2008 – Fayette County. It should be noted however that Fayette, home of Lexington, is also the most populous Boom Town in the state with some 282,000 people.

Rand’s Kind of Towns?

Still, all of that would seem to bode well for Rand Paul, particularly when you add in the fact that Patchwork Nation found that Boom Town counties have highest rates of tea party membership in the nation when we looked at those numbers last month.

But there are a few red flags in the Boom Towns for Rand Paul as well.

First, as we noted last week, even though Paul won the Boom Towns by wide margins, the turnout in those counties was not particularly high. In seven of the 12 Boom Town counties in the state turnout was less than 30 percent – including the three most populous Boom Towns and Paul’s own home county of Warren.

Second, there are aspects of Paul’s libertarian streak that may not be viewed as positively by voters in the Boom Towns.

It’s not clear how all the young families in these communities – about 29 percent of the population is under the age of 20 – will respond to his idea of abolishing the Department of Education. And there will inevitably be questions about where he stands on drug laws – though he told Time magazine he would support federal laws.

Categorizing any set of counties’ politics can be tricky, but on the whole the Boom Towns, tend to be conservative, but more pragmatic than doctrinal in their politics. They don’t have the deep culturally Republican roots of the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters or rural agricultural Tractor Country.

And what that means for a Republican with a deep libertarian stripe is very much an open question.

None of this means Paul is in trouble. Kentucky leans right politically and he will get a big advantage from that. But as his views become better known there are at least some reasons to question how he might do in that state’s 12 critical Boom Towns counties.