Ground zero in the Teabag War this fall will not be in Arkansas nor even Pennsylvania.
It will be in Kentucky.
Rand Paul, as everyone knows, is the Republican/Tea Party nominee. He will be a true Tea Party candidate -- not a moderate temporarily adopted by the Teabaggers like Scott Brown, nor a Wall Street-funded, Club For Growth candidate like Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. And he has made clear he will be running as the 100% pure Tea Party product. And he will raise Tea Party money like his father -- he raised $3 million online in the primary alone.
Jack Conway, the Commonwealth's Attorney General, won a close and hard-fought battle for the Democratic nomination. Now, he has a clear path to victory and the U.S. Senate -- by being the anti-teabagger.
Conway's path to victory rests on the Democratic Netroots rallying to his campaign -- Paul will raise tremendous amounts of money online. Conway will need to answer in kind. Conway must also skillfully contrast his mainstream positions with Paul and Teabagger's weaknesses. And last night Paul gave Conway plenty of ammunition in his primary victory speech (see below).
Full Disclosure -- I am biased: Conway and I were housemates in law school and have been friends since college. I have known for 20+ years how smart he is, what a hard worker he is -- and how his heart is in the right place. I know Republicans and teabaggers don't believe empathy and politics mix -- but Jack does.
I also have an axe to grind: I was a Hill staffer and campaign staffer for Democratic Congressman Scotty Baesler, who lost this Senate seat to Jim Bunning by .5% in 1998, thanks to unrelenting attack ads by the McConnell/Bunning machine. (Scotty was also done in by the weather. On election eve, Bunning's Campaign Manager, a McConnell staffer on loan, laid out the GOP's election day strategy. "Pray for rain," he said. His prayers were answered -- a light rain kept turnout low and delivered the victory).
Kentucky will be a curious battlefield for the Conway-Paul, Teabag/Anti-Teabag battle. Paul has several advantages: in recent years the state has been traditionally Republican at the federal level (the Kentucky congressional delegation is all GOP except for the two outstanding Democratic Members, Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth). And it is one of the "Appalachian-Ozark" Red State chain running from West Virginia to Arkansas which formed the spine of the anti-Obama vote in 2008; Kentucky went McCain by 16 percentage points. With significant rural portions of the state, it may appear ripe for the Paul and the Tea Party to break through.
But Kentucky also has a populist tradition that dates back to the era of Thomas Jefferson, who had a major hand in the state's creation and state constitution. The Commonwealth also has a strong nationalist tradition. In fact, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay was author of the "American System" which called for the United States' first central bank and federal spending on internal improvements. In other words, for the 19th century's version of the Federal Reserve and lots of pet projects and earmark pork. (Enjoy that irony with a Kentucky Bourbon Mint Julep. Please drink responsibly).
Those traditions are alive and well in the Kentucky. Conway, born and bred in Kentucky, could well tap them to defeat Paul, a comparatively recent immigrant from Texas.
Paul's victory speech suggests how Conway's Bluegrass Reality Checks can trump Paul's Teabag blather.
TEABAGISM: Paul began his speech by saying "We have come to take our government back" and "the mandate of our victory tonight is huge".
BLUEGRASS REALITY CHECK: Comparing the vote totals in the respective primaries, Conway outpolled Paul. So did Jack's primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo. If Paul looks at the primary numbers and sees a huge mandate, his math skills won't win the election, much less balance the federal budget.
TEABAGISM: Paul: "Profit is a system we should be proud of..."; "Private property is a system we should be proud of." "[America's success is]... because of capitalism..." "Greed is good..."
BLUEGRASS REALITY CHECK: Okay, that last one was Gordon Gekko, not Paul. And of course, Americans and Kentuckians believe in economic freedom and competition -- and profit and property rights (though I'm not sure the colonials who seized present day Kentucky had a fundamental belief in the property rights of the British owners of those lands).
But America's greatness, many of us believe, comes not just from our economy. America's greatness comes from American democracy and the Constitution -- including the parts Teabaggers ignore, i.e. the civil rights amendments -- even the 17th Amendment right to vote for U.S. Senators, which Teabaggers (in a supreme irony) want to repeal.
(For that irony, switch to a nice single barrel bourbon, like Knob Creek. And always read the Constitution responsibly, even if Teabaggers don't).
And I promise you one Kentucky voting bloc will not buy Paul's railing against government regulation: coal miners.
Massey Energy, itself a Kentucky company, has five coal mines in the Commonwealth. The Kentucky miners there no doubt fear for their safety in light of the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, just to the east. They also wish that Massey, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and anti-regulation forces in the Bush Administration hadn't gutted and corrupted the federal Mine Safety & Health Agency to the point where a tragedy like the one at the Upper Big Branch mine could happen.
TEABAGISM: "The Constitution was to exclusively restrain government."
BLUEGRASS REALITY CHECK: Wrong. The Articles of Confederation were designed to ensure weak government. The whole point of the Constitution was to replace that do-nothing government and create a federal government that could get things done when necessary. And when will Teabaggers and Tenthers discover Article I and the Supremacy Clause?
TEABAGISM: In his victory speech, Paul defended Jim Bunning's filibuster against extending unemployment benefits in March.
BLUEGRASS REALITY CHECK: 'nuff said.
TEABAGISM: Paul said the Financial Crisis was the government's fault -- not Wall Street -- and generally bashed the bailouts.
BLUEGRASS REALITY CHECK: Ask the workers at Ford Motor's Louisville plant what they think of the government's emergency loans to, among others, the car companies. Or for that matter the GM workers who make the Corvette in Paul's hometown, Bowling Green. Then ask them who the UAW will be backing in the fall.
The auto industry offers Conway an excellent argument against Teabagism's nihilism. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Ford's F-Series pickup - made in Louisville - becomes a more potent symbol of Teabagger's Kentucky defeat than of Scott Brown's Massachusetts victory.
The best news to come out of last night was Paul's promise that he would not moderate his views and tack to the center -- he essentially took an oath to hew tightly to Teabag orthodoxy. Conway, known for his pragmatism, has much more room to maneuver.
In the rotunda of Kentucky's State Capitol stand statues of the two men born in the Commonwealth who went on to be elected to the office of President: Abraham Lincoln -- and Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President. There the two Kentuckians stand off against each other eternally, as they did in the Civil War.
This fall, Kentucky will likewise see a momentous standoff between Paul and Conway, the great hope of the Tea Party and the standard bearer for Democrats and progressives and, if only by default, the anti-Teabagger
Perhaps Kentucky -- the state that gave us Henry Clay, Happy Chandler, and Abraham Lincoln himself -- has become so alienated that they'll buy the Teabag snake oil.
My prediction: Conway by eight lengths.
Kentucky Bluegrass, not bitter Tea imported from Texas, is what grows best in the Commonwealth's political soil.