Do Kentuckians dislike Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and national Democrats more than they fear being potentially embarrassed by Rand Paul? That's the question that will be answered at the state's polls on November 2.
At the annual Fancy Farm political gathering that kicks off Kentucky's political season, Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway, who made news with his profane comments at the event a year earlier, quipped that when the GOP nominated Rand Paul, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had supported Paul's opponent Trey Grayson, must have said to himself that "accidents happen." This choice of words echoed Paul's reaction to the BP oil spill in the Gulf.
In hindsight, Paul's victory was a harbinger of anti-incumbent zealotry across the country. He gained the support of Tea Party groups and embraced them. His post-primary gaffes were a preview of more to come from other so-called "Tea Party candidates" such as Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Christine O'Donnell, and Joe Miller.
Inexplicably, Paul went on NPR and the liberal Rachel Maddow Show and engaged in philosophical discussions about whether Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which banned private accommodations from discriminating on the basis of race, was actually an overreach by the federal government. This exchange perhaps highlighted what critics of Paul call his libertarianism on steroids.
Paul went on to cancel an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" and to barrel forward with more gaffes. He upset miners with his views on workplace safety. He puzzled Kentuckians by not knowing about the drug epidemic in the eastern part of the state. And he even had to apologize to Fancy Farm for suggesting that the picnic was a "wild" event where "you do have to worry about people throwing beer in you and throwing things at you."
Conway, Kentucky's attorney general, is a solid conservative Democrat. He's trying to convince voters that he knows how to get bills passed, something Paul has never had any experience with--though Paul wears this outsider status as an anti-Washington, anti-establishment badge of honor. But many parts of Kentucky depend on regulations and an efficient federal government, and these voters may be receptive to Conway's message.
Paul knows this. It is why his campaign attacks Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Nancy Pelosi as much as it attacks Conway, a strategy that will likely intensify as election day approaches.
Averaging various polls show Paul with a slight lead over Conway, which goes to show that Kentuckians' concern about the debt and their dislike of the congressional Democratic agenda may outweigh any flaws they might otherwise see in Paul. If Paul wins this seat, he may join with South Carolina's Jim DeMint in a "Tea Party caucus"--though Paul is one potential senator who will probably march to the beat of his own drummer.
As mentioned earlier, the candidates' debates have been crisp and contentious, with Paul seeming to put Obama, Pelosi, and Reid on trial via Conway while Conway does his best to attack Paul and maintain his moderate Democratic image. After the last debate, things got so heated that Paul refused to shake Conway's hand.
As Howard Fineman correctly noted, Kentuckians don't want to be embarrassed. The race may well turn on who they'll be less embarrassed by--an unorthodox and sometimes wild and woolly senator, or one linked to unpopular Democrats in Congress and the White House. If Kentuckians feel that this election is a choice between the lesser of two evils, the fact that both candidates are dreaded Duke alums in a state that hates Duke basketball (see: Laettner, Christian) adds insult to injury.