MARSHALL COUNTY, Ky.—There are few contests for state Legislature in America that could affect the 2016 presidential race. This one, in far western Kentucky, is one of them.
The incumbent Democrat, Rep. Will Coursey, has been hampered by a lawsuit alleging sexually inappropriate behavior. He denies the allegations and blames Republicans for engaging in tactics that are "feces of the species of poultry." His GOP opponent, Keith Travis, says he's trying to turn Marshall County red at the statehouse for the first time since the mid-1800s. "I just felt like, after 172 years, we ought to at least make that opportunity available," he said.
It's small-town American politics with big-time national consequences for a top 2016 prospect: Rand Paul. This race, along with a handful of others across Kentucky, could determine whether or not Paul is allowed to run for president and for Senate at the same time, something he's indicated he's determined to do.
Under current Kentucky law, Paul must choose to be on the ballot for one or the other. His Republican allies in the Kentucky state Senate have already pushed through a measure to let him run for both, but it has languished in the state's Democratic-controlled House.
"Our position is that a man who can't decide which office to run for isn't fit for either office," said Democratic Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo. "I don't think that bill will ever see the light of day as long as I hold the gavel."
And so Paul and his fellow Kentucky Republicans are trying to pry it from Stumbo's hands. That's where the Marshall County showdown comes in. It's one of the top targets for Kentucky Republicans as they try to take control of what is the last remaining Democratic-held legislative body in the South.
"This is the Battle of Hastings in Kentucky," said Adam Edelen, the Democratic state auditor. "And Rand Paul is extraordinary involved. Not because I think he's particularly personally invested in any policy agenda but because of his own national ambitions."
Already, Paul has starred in a living-room fundraiser for one candidate and cohosted a July fundraiser in Washington for the party's statehouse efforts, and he has five fundraisers for candidates scheduled between August and early September. Paul's advisers say he's also likely to dip into his $3 million campaign treasury (as he did in 2012) to fund a handful of top GOP candidates.
Any money he gives will go far in such low-dollar legislative contests. In one top-tier western Kentucky race, Democratic Rep. Gerald Watkins, had amassed a mere $26,000 as of mid-July and doesn't even have a website. Instead, geraldwatkins.com redirects to the site of his challenger, where Randy Bridges says he'll need to buy some suits if the voters send him to the statehouse. As of mid-July, Bridges had banked about $13,000.
"We're trying to help raise money for the candidates and campaign for the candidates and draw as much attention as we can," Paul told National Journal, after keynoting a recent dinner in Marshall County that benefited local GOP efforts. Flipping the House is "really important," he said, not just for him but Kentucky's flagging economy.
As for the bill that would allow running for multiple offices, Paul added, "I won't say that it's not a consideration."
Paul would hardly be the first candidate to seek reelection and national office at the same time; Paul Ryan did so in 2012, as did Joe Biden in 2008. But neither Wisconsin nor Delaware law barred the practice, unlike Kentucky. The closest analog may be Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who, in 1960, had Texas law changed so he could be on the national ticket and also stand for reelection.
Paul's political team has indicated that he's willing to go to court to overturn the current law, though it's unclear he would prevail.
"It's not an open-and-shut case," said Daniel Tokaji, an election-law expert and law professor at Ohio State University. "He could win but I wouldn't bet money on it."
Regardless, suing for the right to seek two offices simultaneously is an unappealing option for a politician with an outsider brand and who first ran for Senate bashing career politicians. Paul's political team sees other ways around the current law, potentially filing for both races anyway and forcing the secretary of state to not let him appear twice, or not appearing on the presidential primary ballot in Kentucky but everywhere else.
Sen. Marco Rubio faces a similar predicament as Florida law bars being on the ballot twice and he is up for reelection in 2016 and considered a presidential contender. Rubio might have made it even harder for Paul when the senator from Florida suggested this spring that he likely wouldn't run for both. "I think by and large when you choose to do something as big as that you've really got to be focused on that, and not have an exit strategy," Rubio told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
The best option for Paul, then, is to help Republicans seize the Kentucky House, where Democrats currently occupy 54 of the 100 seats. With new district lines and a handful of open seats, Kentucky Republicans hope to capitalize on President Obama's wild unpopularity in the more rural and coal-producing regions of the state.
Two of the GOP's must-take seats in far western Kentucky belong to Watkins and Coursey, who said that Republicans won't be able to nationalize his race, no matter how much they spend. "They Obama'd and Pelosi'd me" in 2012 to no avail, he said, moments after bragging about his "A+" National Rifle Association rating. "We're Kentucky Democrats and that's a different critter altogether."
Stumbo, too, insisted he isn't scared about Paul's growing involvement, noting he recently travelled to Washington and secured $1 million in pledges to help keep the majority. "Rand Paul's got friends in Washington. Guess what, so do we," he said. "Here's the thing about money. It's kind of like snow—once it gets above your knees, who cares how deep it gets?"
Whatever the outcome of these races, Kentucky still has a Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, but state law lets a simple majority of the Legislature override any gubernatorial veto, so Republicans realistically only need a majority of both chambers to pass the Paul legislation.
"I've seen Senator Paul comment publicly that one of his intentions is to flip the House," Beshear said. "My intention is to make sure he's unsuccessful."
As the last remaining Democratic-controlled chamber in the South (not including West Virginia), the Kentucky House contests are expected to receive an infusion of national money, as well. "This is our top target in that region," said Justin Richards, political director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spends money on state legislative races.
This is actually the third straight cycle Republicans have eyed control of the lower Kentucky chamber, gaining ground the last two cycles while still falling short of the majority. "The only thing that's going to get flipped is they're going to get flipped off by Kentucky voters," Stumbo said of Republicans. "As they did in '12 and as they did in '10."