Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul are both Republicans. They both represent Kentucky. And they are once again divided, this time over U.S. military intervention in Syria.
How does a state such as Kentucky send two Republicans to the Senate who sometimes seem like polar opposites? McConnell is a career legislator who’s changed with his party. Paul wants to change the party, and expressed those ambitions in his failed bid for the White House last year.
“The electorate not uncommonly sends two people to the Senate with different visions,” said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
This wouldn’t be the first time in recent weeks. McConnell was a leading supporter in the Senate for President Donald Trump’s bill to replace Obamacare, while Paul led the opposition. Paul’s alliance with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus ultimately led to the legislation’s demise.
It’s not just about policy differences over military force or health care, Voss said. The two Kentucky senators are different kinds of senators. McConnell, first elected in 1984, is a creature of the Senate and an adaptive leader who works with his party where it is at the moment.
“Voters want somebody with seniority and experience,” Voss said.
Paul, by contrast, jumped right into national issues when he was elected in 2010 in an attempt to steer the party in a different direction. His positions on foreign policy, criminal justice and government surveillance often bring him closer to Democrats than his own party’s leaders.
“There are so few people who market themselves the way Rand Paul did,” Voss said.
Trump’s Syria intervention is a classic example of the split.
While McConnell called Trump’s decision “entirely correct,” Paul said that Syria had not attacked the United States and that the Constitution required Trump to seek authorization from Congress for military action.
“The Constitution is very clear that war originates in the legislature,” Paul told reporters Friday. “I think this is a mistake because it’s unconstitutional.”
McConnell, however, said it was entirely up to the president to decide whether he needed to seek authority from Congress to use additional force against Syria. He also brushed aside calls from Democrats for the White House to explain its strategy, saying the airstrike had served its purpose: To deter Syrian president Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons again.
“Really, I don’t know why anybody’s confused,” McConnell said in a news conference Friday. “I thought it was very clear what this strike was about.”
Both men are similar in one respect: They offer their views in a measured, logical manner. There are no raised voices, no demonizing of the other guy.
But boy do they differ. Take the question of whether ousting Assad would bring peace to Syria.
“I don’t see how they can possibly be any settlement in Syria that includes Bashar al-Assad,” McConnell said Friday. “I just can’t imagine, after all the butchering of his own people he’s been doing now for four or five years, that there could be any successful conclusion to this chaos with him still there.”
Paul cited the ouster of Iraq leader Saddam Hussein as a cautionary tale for the unintended consequences of U.S. intervention.
“We thought we’d get rid of him and things would be better. But we got rid of Hussein and Iran got stronger,” Paul said. “If we topple Assad and the people that take over after are equally as bad or worse, what happens?”
On the presidential campaign trail last year, both Trump and Paul had criticized presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their interventions in Iraq and Libya. Both senators opposed giving Obama the authority to strike Syria in 2013.
Trump won Kentucky in November by nearly 30 points. If anything, Voss said, it’s Trump who has more to worry about than Paul, who hasn’t changed his position.
“Rand’s the one being consistent,” Voss said. “Trump’s pivot toward a more muscular foreign policy comes as something of a surprise.”
Voss said Kentucky voters have less to be surprised about from McConnell and Paul, who govern the way they campaigned. And in both cases, on foreign policy or anything else, direction was more important than details.
“The voters cannot say that McConnell or Paul differ from what they were led to expect during the campaign,” he said.
Paul wasn’t McConnell’s first choice to succeed former Republican Sen. Jim Bunning when he retired. McConnell preferred Kentucky’s then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson, an establishment Republican like himself.
Instead, Kentucky wound up with two Republican senators with high public profiles who get lots of media attention, though often for different reasons.
“It’s not clear the voters are worse off,” Voss said.
Alex Daugherty contributed to this article.