The Risks and Rewards of Party Purity

BY Gwen Ifill  October 8, 2010 at 11:33 AM EST

If you want to sum up the challenges facing mainstream Democrats and Republicans this campaign season, hop a plane to Kentucky.

That’s what I did this week, and when I got there I discovered the political world must be a pretty lonely place for Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell this year.

Rand Paul, the eye doctor-turned-insurgent Republican Senate nominee, makes clear at every turn that he has little or no use for his national party. (He doesn’t have much use for the national media either, so I had to resort to stalking to get him to answer my questions.)

“It’s not that the government is inherently stupid, although it’s a debatable question,” he told a room full of laughing loyalists at the Fayette County Republican headquarters in Lexington. “It’s that government doesn’t get the same signals that businesses get.”

Paul has made clear he considers Republicans too willing to compromise on spending and regulation. So by the time he said during a FOX News debate last Sunday that he would back McConnell for party leader – if the caucus did – he sounded like he was hedging.

“Boy,” he said when I asked him to clear it up. “Can’t a politician have an answer that’s open to two different interpretations?” He said this as a joke, called the issue a “straw man,” and went on to say – but of course — he will definitely support McConnell (who also happens to be from Kentucky).

But if Paul and his tea party compatriots are elected next month, the hedging and interpretation surely will not end there. The word “loyalist” is anathema to people who regard themselves as upstarts.

“Part of my reason for running for office, is that it’s not just that I think we need another Republican,” Paul told the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce – essentially a room full of lobbyists — this week. “I think we need reform of the whole system. It’s an out of control bureaucracy that needs to be restrained.” The businessmen and women in the room were polite, but quiet.

The audience was considerably rowdier at a Paul rally over the weekend that featured Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who has been skipping about the country cheering the tea partiers on. DeMint looked pretty giddy himself.

“I came into the Senate with 55 Republican Senators, a big majority of Republicans in the House and George Bush in the White House,” DeMint said as the audience, many of them bused in from a tea party organizing conference nearby, cheered. “And we did not do what we promised the American people we would do. And we deserved to get thrown out.”

I suggested to DeMint afterward that perhaps McConnell might not see things the same way.

“Well, there’s some tension in the party,” he conceded with no small measure of understatement. “And I respect the folks who have been there a long time, and understand their role differently than we do.”

But mainstream Democrats are facing their own threats – especially if “mainstream” means fealty to President Obama.

Jack Conway, Rand Paul’s opponent, is trying to walk a fine and shaky line these days. He hesitates to embrace the president – especially since most Kentuckians aggressively do not. But he clearly does not want to be seen as a turncoat either.

So when Conway is asked about the “Obama problem,” he gives careful answers like the one I got over coffee at Louisville’s North End Cafe.

“I think it’s important that the voters know that I’d be an independent-minded Kentucky Democrat,” he said, placing one figurative foot on the tightrope. “But I’m not going to run from being a Democrat.” There went the other foot.

“And I would certainly welcome him in the state if he wants to come,” he said of the president.

If he wants to come. (Italics mine)

Then he hopped off the rope. “While Rand Paul wants to talk about Barack Obama, this race is about Rand Paul versus Jack Conway. Obama is not on the ballot.” (He hopes.)

But, thanks to Rand Paul, Obama is on the air. Kind of. Check out this ad, which features an Obama impersonator and references to Nancy Pelosi.

Campaign fun and games aside, there are real consequences if the Democrats and Republicans who come to Washington in January are all running in the same direction – away from the White House and from Congressional leadership.

Trey Grayson, the Republican Kentucky Secretary of State was demolished by the Paul lawnmower in the GOP primary, in spite of the fact – and perhaps because -he is an establishment Republican. He’s since had some time to think about the consequences.

“Regardless of the outcome in November, nobody thinks that there’s going to be one party really in control of the other,” he told me this week. “We’re going to have a close House. We’re going to have a close Senate. And that by itself– regardless of who the composition is – will make governing difficult.”

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with Washington Week. Click here to find out who Gwen will talk to on this Friday’s roundtable.