The Kentucky Test: Is Rand Paul's Brew Too Strong?

How deeply will anti-Democrat sentiment affect November's elections? The race between Rand Paul and Jack Conway in Kentucky will reveal a lot

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Ed Reinke / AP

Rand Paul, left, joins Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the annual political picnic in Fancy Farm, KY.

In the shimmering heat at the 130th annual Fancy Farm picnic, which marks the beginning of Kentucky's political season, I saw Death debating a man in a tinfoil hat. Both claimed to be supporters of Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, but Death — who was wearing a sign that read, "[Jack] Conway's Death Tax Kills Farms," a reference to Paul's Democratic opponent — insisted the tinfoil guy was an imposter. "You're a communist," Death told him, then turned to me: "He's just trying to make us look ridiculous." The tinfoil guy was wearing a Rand Paul sign on his back and a Dora the Explorer piñata lashed to his chest. "I'm completely against Mexicans," he explained. This confrontation, which was never resolved, took place two days before GQ magazine reported that an unnamed woman said that in college, "Randy" Paul and a friend had (playfully, it seems) tied her up, abducted her and forced her to take bong hits and worship the Aqua Buddha, a rather delightful but hitherto unknown deity. (Paul belatedly denied the allegation.) One can only imagine what Glenn Beck would do with this if Paul were a Democrat.

Welcome to Campaign 2010. This is going to be a Republican year, perhaps a big one. The question of how big will be resolved in states like Kentucky, where mainstream Republican candidates were defeated in primaries by Tea Party sorts like Rand Paul, and the public will have to decide if the GOP is too loony to rule.

Conway, the other guy in the race, is almost an afterthought, but a solid test case. He's wicked handsome, moderate and Kentucky's attorney general, which is perhaps the best office a Democratic candidate can hold these days. He has spent the past three years doing real-world populist things like suing pharmaceutical companies and cracking down on crime and drug abuse, which is epidemic among eastern Kentucky's impoverished hill-country youth. Such activities are far more acceptable than voting for bank bailouts and stimulus packages, the burden that most incumbent Democratic members of Congress carry. But Kentucky is a fervent Republican state these days — Barack Obama is about as popular there as Tennessee — and Conway's staffers admit they wouldn't have a chance if a standard-issue Republican had won the primary. Paul, by contrast, is a fat target, which became apparent in Conway's Fancy Farm speech.

The Fancy Farm picnic was an avatar of cable news: ever since the 1930s, candidates have given brief speeches in which they are encouraged by the hooting and hollering of their partisans to eviscerate one another. Conway launched his with a call-and-response based on Paul's comment after the Gulf oil spill: "Accidents happen." The last call was "What did [Kentucky Senator] Mitch McConnell say after Rand Paul won the Republican primary?" The crowd: "Accidents happen." Along the way, Conway touched on other controversial Paul positions: against the Americans with Disabilities Act, against mine-safety regulations, against federal aid to farmers. (He didn't mention Paul's most famous goof: against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.) And he closed with a curious remark that Paul made recently, comparing the present-day American economy to "the fall of Rome." This sort of darkness has been the province of Democrats since the Vietnam era; Republicans tend to be sunny American exceptionalists — a message most Americans have traditionally found more amenable but which now flies against the Tea Party's dour socialist/immigrant-takeover orthodoxy. Paul, Conway concluded, "is a waffling pessimist who wants to be the prince of cable TV."

The campaign has not been a comfortable experience for Paul; he has been forced to eschew the courage of his father Ron Paul's convictions. Libertarianism is a basic American political impulse, but ideology isn't. People don't want the government on their backs, except for when they do. And so Paul on the stump seems a man perpetually in the act of biting his tongue. His Fancy Farm speech limned the more popular libertarian talking points: the tax code is 16,000 pages long; the federal regulatory code is 79,000 pages long. But the real meat of his message consisted of four words: "Barack Obama ... Nancy Pelosi." In fact, he would just say each name, let it hang in the air and then repeat it. He invited Pelosi — who has achieved Medusa-like status among Republican audiences — to go to Kentucky and campaign for Conway. It was an unsatisfying show, but Paul may not have to do more than that to win.

The polls have Paul slightly ahead at this point. Democrats grumble that Conway hasn't grabbed hold of the race — neither candidate is a natural gutbucket backslapper — but there is plenty of time to do that. There will be debates this fall, in which the most important question of the race will be decided: Who is scarier to Kentuckians, Rand Paul or Barack Obama?