The Obscure Kentucky Contests That Could Alter Rand Paul’s 2016 Plans

At stake in the statehouse races is Paul’s ability to run both for president and Senate reelection in 2016.

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to the press outside after listening to US President Barack Obama speak about poverty during an event in the East Room of the White House's private dining room January 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Aug. 14, 2014, 2:05 a.m.

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, ger­ald­ 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.”

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