Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 18, 2012

RONNIE ELLIS: Tea party influence still felt

For The Independent

FRANKFORT — If Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ calculations are correct, a small number of voters in northern Kentucky could have a big impact Tuesday on the future of the Republican Party of Kentucky. Based on past elections and absentee ballots, Grimes suggests only about 12 percent of voters may turn out.

Just like in 2010 when Rand Paul took on the RPK establishment and won, tea party activists could prove crucial in this year’s 4th Congressional District Republican Primary. The tea party is de-centralized but its influence is felt throughout the state. But nowhere is it more influential than in northern Kentucky. And because tea party activists are so energized, they are more likely to turn out Tuesday — just like they did in May of 2010.

Trey Grayson was vanquished by Paul in the 2010 primary despite two statewide election victories in a Democratic registered state and the open backing of Sen. Mitch McConnell and other establishment Republicans. McConnell won’t say so, but at the time he believed a Paul primary victory meant defeat in the general election. Paul surprised McConnell — and nearly everyone else — by proving that wrong and McConnell moved quickly to support Paul and repair any damage between them. Since then, the man who previously preached the opportunity to reach compromise in a divided government has increasingly taken more inflexible — and tea party-leaning — positions on national issues.

Now Paul and his supporters are backing Lewis County Judge/Executive Thomas Massie in the 4th District while the northern Kentucky establishment is backing state Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington or Boone County Judge/Executive Gary Moore. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and the incumbent Congressman Geoff Davis, who is retiring, endorsed Webb-Edgington while some traditional Republican establishment donors are backing Moore. Many county officials are backing one of those two as well. But Webb-Edgington’s and Moore’s dual attacks on Massie create the perception that Massie is the front-runner.

Massie also has the support of Phil Moffett, the man who had no money, less name recognition, no support from Republican officials and yet scared the pants off of presumptive and eventual nominee David Williams in the 2011 gubernatorial primary. Moffett won northern Kentucky handily just as Paul did in 2010. Now both Moffett and Paul grassroots operatives are working for Massie. Massie would seem to start out at a disadvantage geographically. He’s from the eastern, rural end of the district where there are fewer Republican votes while his two chief rivals hail from the populous, urban area across the river from Cincinnati. Massie, like Paul, has also been forthright in his singular focus on national issues rather than local ones.

But Massie isn’t the only tea party-inspired candidate in the race. Tom Wurtz takes even more aggressive positions on spending cuts and reductions in the size and influence of the federal government than Massie and could peel off some of Massie’s support — though Wurtz isn’t likely to win. But in a close, seven-candidate race with a low turnout, Wurtz’s support would probably come from those who would otherwise support Massie just as Webb-Edgington and Moore will split votes.

If Massie wins, it indicates the strength of the tea party hasn’t diminished and may be growing — at least within the Republican Party. That has implications for contests for party leadership, for Paul whose influence will grow and even for McConnell who has watched tea party groups unseat incumbent Republican senators in Utah and Indiana and who will again be on the ballot in 2014.

There could be more at stake Tuesday than just a congressional seat.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.