Politics & Government

Rand Paul wins U.S. Senate race in Kentucky

Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul celebrates with his wife, Kelley, in Kentucky.
Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul celebrates with his wife, Kelley, in Kentucky. Daniel Houghton/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT

Republican Rand Paul, little known in state politics before joining with the charged-up Tea Party movement in his bid for the U.S. Senate, defeated Democrat Jack Conway Tuesday by about 150,000 votes.

Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon making his first bid for public office, pushed a message of limited government and criticism of President Barack Obama to easily outdistance Conway, the state's attorney general from Louisville.

Paul benefited from the name recognition and fund-raising network of his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a two-time presidential candidate who introduced his son by video before his victory speech.

Rand Paul told cheering supporters that he will carry a message of fiscal sanity, limited constitutional government and a balanced budget to the Senate.

"When I arrive in Washington, I will ask them, respectfully, to deliberate upon this: We are in the midst of a debt crisis, and the American people want to know why we have to balance our budgets, and they don't," Paul said

Paul did not mention Conway in his speech.

In an emotional, gracious concession, Conway said he told Paul that he would be at his disposal if Paul finds issues on which the two could work together to help people.

"We all ought to wish him well as he tries to do right by our state, and we ought to be helpful in that regard," Conway said.

Conway said he would probably run for another term as attorney general next year.

Kentucky's senior U.S. senator, Republican Mitch McConnell, said the vote for Paul was a strong statement.

"His message of reining in outrageous Washington spending and the overreaching policies of the Obama administration resonated throughout the state," McConnell said in a statement.

Paul won a six-year term to replace Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who did not seek re-election.

The contentious race attracted national and international attention.

In a big year for Republicans, Conway faced an uphill battle in a conservative state, analysts said.

There are more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans, but most are conservative Democrats, and the state tends to vote GOP in federal elections.

Paul's ideological advantage was magnified by concern and anger over high unemployment, the deep federal deficit and policies of the Obama administration such as health care reform, which will benefit many people but has raised concerns about higher costs for business.

Paul won because "he tapped into the anger and anxiety of the people," said Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe of Louisville.

Paul's call to cut federal spending, deficits and regulation was much more in tune with the prevailing mood of Kentuckians, analysts said.

"Paul certainly had the right message at the right time," said Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University.

Paul nationalized the race, criticizing President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders at every turn without even mentioning Conway many times.

Conway tried to counter by personalizing the race, arguing Paul's anti-federal philosophy would endanger a range of programs in the social and regulatory safety net, including workplace safety rules, environmental protection, college loans and access for people with disabilities.

But Conway wasn't able to combat the tide of the times, said Larry Sabato, a national political analyst who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"Paul has the most valuable thing in America this year — an R beside his name," Sabato said. "The only way Conway could've won is if Rand Paul completely self-destructed."

Paul didn't do that, but he did stumble a few times, creating openings for Conway.

For instance, the day after the May primary Paul made statements in interviews that led many people to believe he thought the 1964 Civil Rights Act infringed on property rights by barring discrimination at private businesses.

The comments drew widespread criticism, but the gaffe happened early enough in the campaign that Paul had time to recover, Sabato said.

Late in the campaign, a television ad based on incidents from Paul's college days became a controversial issue.

The commercial referred to one case in which a woman said Paul, in an apparent prank, tried to get her to smoke pot, then took her to a creek, told her he worshipped "Aqua Buddha," and made her bow down.

It also cited Paul's membership in a secret society at Baylor University in the early 1980s that mocked Christianity.

Conway's camp said the intent was to question Paul's judgment, but many voters saw the ad as improperly questioning Paul's Christianity.

"The minute you flash that Bible up on the screen, it's about his religion," said state Rep. Alicia Webb-Edgington, the 4th District Republican chairwoman.

Analysts said the ad was a Hail Mary pass that backfired, allowing Paul to claim he was being unfairly attacked and changing the focus of the race at a crucial time.

Before, Conway had been scoring points with ads claiming Paul favored requiring Medicare recipients to pay a $2,000 deductible, but the ad took the spotlight off that issue, observers said.

"The Aqua Buddha narrative was clearly better for Paul," Lasley said.

Another problem was that Conway didn't give people enough of a reason to vote for him, and didn't focus enough on major issues such as jobs and the economy, Briscoe said.

"He talked about drugs and 'Aqua Buddha,' while the people were worried sick about the economy," Briscoe said.

Conway needed to connect with voters on a personal level to try to overcome the national winds blowing Paul's way, but he didn't do that effectively enough, observers said.

And about the same time the controversial TV ad was souring some voters, pro-Republican groups intent on defeating Conway ramped up their spending.

Paul raised more campaign cash than Conway. And groups outside the state spent $4.3 million for ads opposing Conway — nearly $2 million more than outside groups spent against Paul, the Sunlight Foundation calculated.

The outside groups spent another $1.6 million in the race. Documents didn't state who had benefitted, the group said, but a good portion certainly helped Paul.

The attack ads by outside groups played a major role in the race, said state Auditor Crit Luallen, a close friend of Conway's.

"That's a very, very difficult environment when people are already concerned and worried because of this recession," Luallen said.

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