LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky voters made Rand Paul their next senator Tuesday in a convincing display of tea party strength that defied Democratic hopes and early Republican fears that his ultraconservative views made him unelectable.
The eye doctor and son of libertarian-leaning GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas ran against President Barack Obama about as much as he did against his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway. Paul's condemnation of budget deficits, the economic stimulus and the health care overhaul resonated among voters even as Conway tried to portray him as too extreme and out of touch on such issues as taxes, entitlements and drug prevention.
A triumphant Paul promised to take his agenda of limited government and balanced budgets to the Senate.
"I have a message from the people of Kentucky, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We've come to take our government back," Paul told hundreds of cheering supporters in his hometown of Bowling Green. It was the same message he delivered the night he won the primary thanks to tea party support.
"The American people want to know why we have to balance our budget and they don't," he said.
Conway conceded and wished Paul well "as he tries to do right by our state."
"I told him that if he finds issues we can work on together, this Democrat is at his disposal," he said.
With 89 percent of precincts reporting, Paul was leading Conway 56 percent to 44 percent in the race to replace Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring.
The videotaped fracas of a Paul supporter stepping on a liberal activist a week before the election appeared to have little effect. So did a bizarre anonymous claim from Paul's college days involving an alleged abduction and alleged something called "Aqua Buddha." That allegation might ultimately have hurt Conway because he used it as the basis for an attack ad that raised questions about Paul's religious beliefs.
Paul, 47, was an early tea party enthusiast who trounced the GOP establishment's pick, Trey Grayson, in the primary. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and others feared Paul's brand of conservatism might make him unelectable in the fall, but they quickly embraced him.
McConnell eagerly welcomed Paul as his new colleague, and praised the newcomer for his message of "reining in outrageous Washington spending and the overreaching policies of the Obama administration."
Paul suffered a post-primary stumble when he expressed misgivings about how the Civil Rights Act bans racial discrimination by private businesses. He later said he abhors discrimination and would have voted for the 1964 law. He also drew criticism for decrying Obama's harsh rhetoric against BP over the Gulf oil spill as "really un-American."
As the campaign continued, however, Paul focused more closely on his key message of smaller government with a mix of bluntness and finesse. He talked about possible future changes to Social Security and Medicare as growing numbers of baby boomers retire, but opposed changes for current recipients. He said he would propose balancing the budget in a single year without raising taxes, which would require cutting the federal budget by more than a third, but he was short on specifics.
Paul also called for repealing the health care overhaul and denounced Obama's cap-and-trade environmental legislation as harmful to Kentucky coal.
Conway said his opponent's position on taxes and entitlements would inflict economic hardships in a poor state. Conway railed against Paul for discussing a $2,000 Medicare deductible and the FairTax, a proposal that includes eliminating the federal income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent national sales tax.
Outside money poured into the race. Paul was the main beneficiary, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an alliance with ties to one-time President George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove painted Conway as a liberal Obama backer.
The race turned personal when Conway aired a TV ad that asked why Paul was a member in college of a secret campus society that mocked Christians and once allegedly tied up a woman and told her to worship an idol and claimed his god was "Aqua Buddha." Paul denied being involved in any kidnapping and said he's a "pro-life Christian." He later refused to shake Conway's hand at a debate over the ad, which Paul said was a false attack on his religion.
Though voters were not asked specifically about the "Aqua Buddha" ad in the exit polling, nine of out 10 who voted for Paul said Conway had attacked the Republican unfairly.
Tommy Duffy, 58, a sheriff's deputy in Jefferson County, said Tuesday that he considered voting for Conway until the Democrat ran the "Aqua Buddha" ad, which turned him off.
"That was pretty much desperation, a desperate shot," Duffy said. "I didn't like that at all."