Paul, once a decided longshot, has a clear lead in the GOP primary.
Revenge comes in different forms. No doubt Sen. Jim Bunning has been thinking about that since he was eased out of a third term bid by Kentucky Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell.
At one point, Bunning — whose polling numbers were shaky and who was having trouble raising money — threatened to just quit and let the Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, pick his successor. That would fix McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, wouldn't it! But whatever you want to say about Bunning — yes, he's cantankerous and combative and prickly — he is a Republican, a strong conservative Republican. And he was not about to jeopardize his party just because of his squabble with McConnell.
So while he didn't stay in the race out of spite, he didn't quit to give the Dems another seat either.
When Bunning made it official last summer by announcing he wouldn't run again, the Kentucky GOP establishment quickly united behind Trey Grayson, the secretary of state. McConnell was officially hands-off in the contest, but his fingerprints on the Grayson candidacy were clearly there.
Grayson is a conservative, with conservative values and conservative positions. But it is clear that neither he, nor McConnell, nor state party leaders were prepared for Rand Paul. The son of Texas congressman Ron Paul and an ophthalmologist, Paul used many of the campaign techniques long employed by his father, including an impressive amount of money raised on the Internet. (He and Grayson are about even in the $$$ department.) For all the money raked in by Ron Paul in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, however, it failed to translate into political success; Paul was never a threat to win the nomination.
Anyone who thought that Paul fils would wind up like Paul pere was in for a surprise. The latest Louisville Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, had Paul leading Grayson by 15 points (45-30, with 19% undecided). The Courier-Journal's Joseph Gerth reports that Grayson has been on the defensive over the charge he accepted campaign contributions from lobbyists associated with AIG, the insurance giant that took billions of dollars in bailouts. Grayson denies his campaign took any money from AIG. Paul campaign spokesperson David Adams said it's no surprise his candidate is leading:
Rand Paul's strong performance across the state reflects his solid support of issues important to Kentuckians like balanced budgets, private-sector job creation, strong national defense and term limits. Republicans in Kentucky know a real conservative when they see one.
The Grayson camp insists the race is a dead heat and has been hammering at the Pauls' foreign-policy views. Here's Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson:
The more voters learn about Rand Paul's reliance on his father's out-of-state political machine, the less desire they have to help Rand join the family business, especially as they hear more about Paul's strange agenda and witness his willingness to say anything to hide it.
Bunning no doubt took special delight in endorsing Paul on Wednesday. With a clear jab aimed at McConnell, Bunning said Paul "will be his own man in Washington, not beholden to the special interests and beltway insiders who come looking for handouts on a daily basis." Politico's Jonathan Martin says the endorsement "comes as a surprise" because there was a time when Bunning "appeared to give his political blessing to Grayson, who created an exploratory committee only after meeting with the senator":
But Bunning has long been at odds with McConnell and, with Paul leading in many polls, plainly saw an opportunity to strike back at his rival. ...
Bunning’s endorsement underlines Paul’s strong standing just over a month before the primary. Capturing support from many tea party activists, Paul has staked out an advantage over Grayson, the establishment-preferred candidate.
CQ Politics' Emily Cadei is not sure what effect Bunning's endorsement will make:
Regardless, it offers Bunning one last opportunity to poke his finger in the eye of McConnell and his cohorts.
Paul has also been endorsed by Sarah Palin. Dick Cheney earlier weighed in on Grayson's behalf.
RedState.com's Erick Erickson says this whole episode shows what's wrong with the Grayson campaign:
I know some of you have a hard time supporting Rand Paul, mostly because of his dad. In fact, most of the attacks hurled at Rand have been about his father’s positions, confusing the two. To be fair though, I don’t agree with all of Rand’s positions.
But let’s look at Trey Grayson for just a minute. The man has refused to take a substantive position on bailouts, etc. for the longest time. He’s peddled false smears against Paul that Paul is pro-choice. In fact, Rand Paul is very much pro-life. ...
And the icing on the cake? Now Trey Grayson is attacking Sarah Palin because Palin endorsed Rand Paul. Grayson says Palin is unfit for office and he questions her judgment.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Republican that D.C. Republicans say we should all get behind.
The Democrats running in the May 18 primary are Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, who narrowly lost to Bunning six years ago, and state Attorney General Jack Conway. That race is expected to be close. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows both losing handily to either Republican.