Tea Party Could Upset Kentucky's GOP Primary

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Next Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania is grabbing most of the advance attention, if for no other reason than the state’s proximity to the New York–D.C. media corridor. The race also features the anguished tale of 80-year-old Sen. Arlen Specter’s late-game conversion from Republican to Democrat. He may suffer a humiliating loss to Rep. Joe Sestak, but the outcome itself is not a game changer. Either Democrat would face a tough race in the fall.

The far more significant Senate primary race is elsewhere: in Kentucky, where Tea Party fave Dr. Rand Paul is poised to demolish the establishment Republican candidate, Trey Grayson. If you’re looking for midterm tea leaves to read—pardon the pun—they’re in the deepening red down in the Bluegrass State.

GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, NEWSWEEK has learned, is not planning to be in his hometown of Louisville on Tuesday night. The stated reason is the press of Senate business, but he also may not want to be in the vicinity of what most Kentucky handicappers are now assuming will be a loss by his handpicked candidate, Secretary of State Grayson. Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, has been endorsed by evangelical Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family, as well as by Tea Party types in and out of the GOP nationally.

Even though McConnell will stay away from the blast site Tuesday, he’s nothing if not a shrewd political survivalist. He’s already scheduled to appear (presumably with Paul) at a GOP “unity” event in the state on Saturday, May 22. “Mitch will have to decide whether to fully embrace the Tea Party types or not,” said one prominent Democrat in Louisville, who declined to speak for attribution because the city needs McConnell’s help in D.C. “Will he overlook the nuts and the crazies? Knowing him, I bet he’ll go with them.” I’m looking for McConnell to join the Tea Party by Wednesday, if they’ll have him.

The blithe assumption among many observers is that Paul—a 100-proof libertarian who, among other things, wants to withdraw all U.S. military forces from missions around the world—will be easy prey for whoever wins the Democratic Senate primary. But I wouldn’t bet against Paul in a state that, for cultural reasons, has been trending red for years, and which Sen. John McCain won in 2008 by a whopping 16-point margin.

“It’s going to be a tough race regardless,” my Louisville source said. “Outside of this city, there aren’t many Barack Obama fans in Kentucky. That’s the reality.”