U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is facing re-election in 2014, is doing everything he can to make sure he does not become the next Trey Grayson in Kentucky politics.
You remember Grayson, don’t you? In 2010, he was in his second term as Kentucky secretary of state, having been elected to the office in 2003 when he was only 31. He had proven himself to be someone who could work with members of both parties to get things done in Frankfort.
Grayson was the chosen candidate of the leaders of the Kentucky Republican Party to succeed retiring Republican Jim Bunning in the U.S. Senate. Earlier, Republican leaders, led by McConnell, had concluded Bunning could not win another Senate term and the senior senator had pressured his Senate colleague to not seek re-election. McConnell quickly endorsed Grayson for the Senate seat and actively campaigned for him.
On Jan. 1, 2010, Grayson was a heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination to succeed Bunning. But the Grayson campaign was blindsided by tea party favorite Rand Paul of Bowling Green, who easily defeated Grayson in the Republican primary, and Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for Bunning’s Senate seat, in November.
Paul’s victory and the sudden popularity of the tea party, not only in Kentucky but throughout the country, dramatically changed the politics of Mitch McConnell. Prior to Paul’s victory, McConnell boasted about how he had used earmarks to bring projects to Kentucky, including $10 million for Ashland’s riverfront. If McConnell thought adding spending projects to bills without a vote of the entire Congress was a prime example irresponsible spending, he never said it. Or at least he didn’t before Paul’s victory.
But McConnell said he had heard the voice of the people in 2010 and immediately vowed to oppose earmarks. In short, he began criticizing the things he once supported. McConnell was not alone in turning from his free-spending ways following the 2010 election. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th, the dean of Kentucky’s congressional delegation, also turned his back on earmarks he had used to bring many projects to his eastern Kentucky district.
However, not all Kentucky Republicans are convinced Mitch McConnell is a changed man. They remember the senator who praised the things the tea party criticized. Because many tea party supporters are not convinced Mitch McConnell is now a true believer of their movement and not just a politician who will say anything to get their support, many have been expecting a tea party candidate will challenge McConnell, the minority leader in the U.S. Senate, in the 2014 Republican primary. McConnell is doing his best to prevent that from happening, and he has gained the support of Paul in this effort.
McConnell has forged a mutually beneficial alliance with Paul. McConnell needs Paul’s tea party influence to keep potential primary challengers at bay and to energize his general election campaign against the likely Democratic nominee, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Paul, who has presidential aspirations and is looking to run in 2016, needs McConnell’s connections to the wealthy donor base of the Republican establishment.
In our view, Trey Grayson was an excellent secretary of state who would have been a good U.S. senator. However, he never considered Paul a serious candidate until it was too late. He never recovered and ran a terrible campaign in the primary.
Mitch McConnell also misread the support of the tea party in Kentucky in 2010. He is doing what he can to not repeat that mistake in 2014, when his own political future is on the line.