A self-described “conservative with conviction and common sense,” Thomas Massie campaigned on his business background and budget-cutting experience as a county official to rise above a crowded field to win the May 2012 GOP primary in Kentucky’s 4th District. That made him the odds-on favorite to replace the retired Rep. Geoff Davis, also a Republican. Davis initially had planned to serve out the remainder of his term, but resigned abruptly over unspecified family matters in July 2012.
Massie has an impressive scientific background. He was born and raised in Vanceburg, Ky., and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at MIT, Massie was part of a group that invented the Phantom, a device enabling users to interact with objects in cyberspace through touch. To market the product, he and his wife, Rhonda (his high school sweetheart and also an MIT student), started the firm SensAble Technologies in 1993. In 1995, he won a $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his work in technology. After earning his master’s degree in engineering in 1996, Massie continued to raise venture capital to expand the company.
Massie eventually left SensAble Technologies in 2003, and moved back to Kentucky with his family to run a farm. According to a profile in the publication Xconomy, Massie built a timber-frame house that runs on solar energy. He got interested in politics after learning about a proposed tax in Lewis County that would fund a building for a local conservation office. After writing a letter to the editor objecting to the tax, “It was probably at that point there was no turning back from my involvement in politics,” he later told a gathering in Newport, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.
In 2010, he entered the political fray by winning a campaign for Lewis County judge-executive. In that position, Massie boasted that in the first nine months he eliminated enough wasteful spending to pay his first three years of salary.
Massie launched his campaign to replace Davis in January 2012. In an early speech, Massie harkened to his time with SensAble: “For me, the government was one of those entities that was putting land mines in the field that I had to navigate when we started the company.” In a seven-candidate field, Massie’s two closest competitors were establishment favorites: Republican state Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore. Webb-Edgington was a former state trooper and narcotics detective known for her strong work ethic. She also had the endorsement of outgoing Rep. Davis.
But Massie attracted the all-important support of tea party activists. He had been a strong supporter of tea party favorite Rand Paul during Paul’s 2010 Senate race, and Massie named former Paul aide Ryan Hogan as his campaign manager. Paul later appeared in a TV ad for Massie.
Webb-Edgington and Moore attacked Massie for benefiting from the largesse of Liberty for All, a Texas-based super PAC that generated controversy when reports surfaced that it was primarily bankrolled by James Ramsey, a 21-year-old Texas college student with a hefty inheritance. He provided the group with more than $500,000 to spend on behalf of Massie.
Still, Massie effectively portrayed himself as the outsider in the race, while Webb-Edgington and Moore split the establishment vote. Massie won the primary handily, with 45 percent of the vote to Webb-Edgington’s 29 percent and Moore’s 15 percent. In the special election necessitated by Davis’s early departure, Massie easily beat Grant County lawyer Bill Adkins.
Gregg Sangillo contributed to this article.