Rand Paul’s attempt to simultaneously run for two major public offices got a boost this week from the the Kentucky Democratic Party’s implosion.
For months, political observers have speculated that Paul’s shaky White House campaign was hurting his chances of winning re-election next year to the U.S. Senate.
Paul appeared to have a formidable challenger in Democrat Adam Edelen. But on Tuesday, Edelen lost his own bid for re-election to a second term as state auditor. Following his unexpected defeat to a little-known Republican challenger, Edelen told Insider Louisville that he isn’t planning to challenge Paul next year.
The outcome of the 2015 election bolstered the idea that Kentucky was becoming increasingly safe for GOP candidates in statewide races. In addition to Republican state Rep. Mike Harmon’s election as auditor, GOP candidates also took the governor’s and treasurer’s offices from the Democratic Party.
But Democrats may still have a path to seriously challenging Paul.
Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson can commiserate with Edelen. In 2010, Grayson’s seemingly solid bid for the Republican Senate nomination was derailed by an unlikely challenger: Rand Paul.
Grayson said the 2015 election could provide an opportunity for Democrats.
“What would be interesting is: Would you get an outsider, a non-traditional candidate to run in that race? Maybe take advantage of some of the unsettled nature and, ironically, run against Paul and say, ‘He’s the politician, I am the outsider,'” said Grayson, who until last year was director of the Harvard Institute of Politics.
In 2010, Grayson was the experienced, establishment Republican candidate. Paul was the scrappy upstart. That dynamic played out again on Tuesday in the governor’s race. Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway was upset by Matt Bevin, who hasn’t held public office before and has a history of challenging his own party.
“With Edelen’s loss and the void there for the Democratic Party, somebody non-traditional like a Matt Jones or a businessperson in the end might actually be a more formidable candidate, given in the environment in which we operate,” he said.
Jones is well-known in the state as the host of Kentucky Sports Radio and a longtime blogger on University of Kentucky athletics. He’s also become a political figure in the state, interviewing candidates and hosting the Fancy Farm Picnic in August.
Jones said he’s not ruling out a run for Senate against Paul. But this week’s loss for Democrats complicates things.
“The idea of a statewide run — especially for senator — is intriguing to me,” said Jones, who is also an attorney. “But you can’t do that without a lot of support. So money is going to be an issue. Rand Paul is able to raise a lot of money.”
Jones said the bulk of Paul’s fundraising support would stem from perception.
“Had the Democrats won this week, the perception would be that Rand Paul was vulnerable,” he said. “Now that they have lost, the perception is he’s not vulnerable. I would argue it hasn’t really changed much at all, but the perception has changed, which would make the financial aspect of this much more difficult.”
In the wake of the 2015 general election, the Democratic candidate — whoever it is — will have a difficult time raising money, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
As Paul spent time in other states campaigning for president, Republicans were starting to get worried about the Kentucky Senate seat. Citing unnamed sources, Politico reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pressed Paul’s campaign to focus on the Senate seat. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also has raised concerns about Paul’s dual campaigns.
Paul continues to poll in the mid-single digits in the crowded presidential race, but he’s said he has no intention of ending his bids in both races. Last month, he said he’s not worried about losing the Senate seat.
Still, a change in game-plan toward an outsider candidate would have its advantages for Democrats, Voss said.
“Non-traditional candidates often can break through when traditional ones do not, because their novelty quality attracts media exposure that a mainstream candidate might have needed to purchase,” Voss said. “Also, a subset of voters like candidates who promise to shake up the system, and they do not care much about the candidate’s ideology.”
But that subset of voters is small, Voss said. He said a partisan swing from one party to the other would be more likely to boost the Democrats in a race against Paul, regardless of who the candidate is.
Jones said he has to figure out whether this is the right time for him to run. He said “public service” is definitely part of his long-term plans, though.
“We have become so disenchanted with politicians that the idea of running for Congress people act like your trying to walk into a torture rack,” he said. “That saddens me, and it is something that at some point I want to change.”
Jones also said it’s up to the Democratic Party to decide whether they want to back a less traditional candidate, which the party doesn’t have a recent history of doing.
The filing deadline for 2016 federal races in Kentucky is January.