A Kentucky political fight over a state law that governs electoral ballots is emerging as an early test for Sen. Rand Paul should he decide to run for president in 2016.
Kentucky's junior senator recently won straw polls in New Hampshire and at CPAC, and it's no secret he is weighing a campaign for the White House. There's just one problem: Kentucky law prohibits candidates from appearing twice on the ballot, a potential obstacle if you're running for Senate and president.
That's where Paul's GOP allies come in. Damon Thayer, majority leader of the Kentucky Senate, is shepherding a bill through the Legislature that would solve the problem, and last week Mitch McConnell, minority leader in the U.S. Senate and Kentucky's senior senator, said he supports the effort.
State Sen. Joe Bowen, who chairs the committee that handled the bill, says Kentucky Republicans have been discussing the measure since before the current legislative session began earlier this year. For them, it accomplishes two things: It helps an influential political figure, and it raises the state's profile. They say it's no different from Rep. Paul Ryan running for his House seat and the vice presidency in 2012 or Joe Biden running for his Senate seat in Delaware and the vice presidency in 2008.
"We're motivated to allow him to run for both offices," Bowen said. "My interest is, one, he'd make an excellent president, and two it'd be good for the commonwealth of Kentucky."
Paul's camp casts the state Senate bill as a kind of insurance policy and insists that the Kentucky law pertains only to state offices and not their federal counterparts.
"We are not seeking to change the law, but rather to clarify that the Kentucky statute does not apply to federal elections," RAND PAC Executive Director Doug Stafford said in a statement. "Federal law governs federal elections, and the Supreme Court has made it clear that states cannot impose additional qualifications beyond those in the Constitution."
That's an argument that Paul might have to press in court because the state House and governorship in Kentucky are controlled by Democrats, and neither shows any sign of supporting the Senate bill, which Bowen said he expects will pass the upper chamber before the end of the session.
Republicans argue Democrats should back the measure because it could one day help them. They cast the bill as nonpartisan.
"There are some naysayers," Bowen said. "There are some naysayers on apple pie."
But Kentucky Democrats aren't about to change their minds. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo has shot the idea down.
"If you're gonna run, you oughta make up your mind and run for one office and one office only," Stumbo said last month.
Still, Republicans are taking some heart. The proposal won the support of Democratic state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, which encouraged Bowen. He blames some of the opposition on end-of-session tension.
"Nerves are frayed," he said. "We're winding down. Maybe they have a change of heart. Talk is cheap."