FRANKFORT, Ky. — The headquarters of the Republican Party of Kentucky occupies the corner of a leafy neighborhood about a half-dozen blocks north of the Capitol. There are two signs out front. One, in gold lettering, identifies the facility as the party headquarters. The other reads: “MITCH McCONNELL BUILDING.”
And so it has been. For three decades, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and the state’s senior senator, has been the face, heart, and brains of Kentucky Republicanism. And although he is expected to dispatch his tea-party primary opponent, Matt Bevin, with ease on Tuesday, the campaign has put on display a simple fact: McConnell is no longer the singular force here he once was.
“There’s a change of the guard taking place now in Kentucky,” said James Comer, the state agriculture commissioner and front-runner — though he is still technically undeclared — for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2015. “It’s still McConnell’s Republican Party, but it’s edging toward being Rand’s Republican Party.”
The shift has been, literally, broadcast for all to see in the last week. As the primary date has approached, one of McConnell’s closing television ads featured a testimonial from the state’s junior senator, Rand Paul.
“It is clear,” said Al Cross, a longtime observer of Kentucky politics and the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, “who carries the stick in that ad.”
The ad is all the more notable given that only four years ago it was McConnell in the starring and endorsing role in the final ad of the Senate GOP primary. “I need Trey Grayson in Washington,” McConnell said of the candidate he picked to run against Paul. The voters disagreed. Paul trounced Grayson by 23 points. The political winds have been shifting ever since.
The current passing of the torch is occurring even as McConnell remains one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, a man with a serious shot to become Senate majority leader next year. Yet Paul, the feisty first-term senator with a libertarian streak and his eyes on the White House, has eclipsed him as the preeminent and most popular GOP pol in the Bluegrass State.
It’s not so much that McConnell, 72, isn’t still feared and powerful. It’s just that he isn’t as feared or as powerful.
“To use a corporate analogy, he used to be the majority shareholder,” Cross said. “Now he’s only the plurality shareholder.”
The Paul ad tells only part of the story. Ever since Paul’s upstart win in 2010, McConnell has courted him and his tea-party base. As he plotted his own reelection this year, McConnell tapped his junior’s 2010 campaign manager, Jesse Benton, as his own. When an audio recording later leaked of Benton saying he was “sort of holding my nose” to do the job, because it would “be a big benefit to Rand in ‘16,” McConnell grinned and had to bear it. Benton kept his job. And they posed together for a picture on Facebook as Benton held his nose.
McConnell stayed silent, too, when Paul explained to conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck in February that he backed McConnell “because he asked me. He asked me when there was nobody else in the race. And I said yes.”
People close to McConnell say he is singularly focused on winning; embracing Paul simply smoothed the path to primary victory, whatever hit his reputation took. “His ego never gets in his way of doing what he needs to do in a campaign,” said Ted Jackson, a veteran GOP strategist in Kentucky. Senate Minority Leader Sen Mitch McConnell shakes hands with Sen. Rand Paul. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Still, the primary has left a lingering impression. As Joe Sonka, a McConnell antagonist and news editor at Louisville’s LEO Weekly, recently told Rolling Stone, “This is a once-proud man, reduced to begging.”
There is a reason the Kentucky GOP headquarters is named after McConnell. He, as much as any individual, is responsible for the conversion of Kentucky from a solidly Democratic state to a deep-red Republican one, at least at the federal level. Democrats used to dominate the congressional delegation; now they are relegated to a single House seat. Republicans took over the state Senate a decade ago, under McConnell’s watch, and hope to add the state House this year.
“He’s certainly been the architect of the modern Republican Party in Kentucky, without question,” said Steve Robertson, the party chairman since 2007.
The state GOP has grown faster than ever during the Obama administration, adding tens of thousands of new voters to its rolls. The party has taken a notable rightward turn. Kentucky Republicans have sent not only Paul to Washington but also recently Rep. Thomas Massie, one of most libertarian members of the House.
Former Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll, now a Democratic state senator, said McConnell still “pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes, but I don’t think he’s as respected by the members of his party as in years past. Quite frankly, most of the leadership of the Republican Party that I know consider him too liberal.”
If anything, Robertson suggested, McConnell is a victim of his own success. “When you’re growing, that means you have more people involved,” he said. “Mitch McConnell has not diminished, but there are just more people who are also providing leadership in the party.”
Josh Holmes, who has served as McConnell’s chief of staff and is currently a senior adviser on his campaign, put it this way: “The fact that he can share the stage because it’s a larger stage is what he envisioned all along.”
The baton has not been fully passed, in part because Paul doesn’t seem interested, Kentucky GOP strategists and officials said. Instead, he appears more focused on Des Moines, say, than Frankfort.
“The interesting dynamic there is, Mitch wants it to be Mitch McConnell’s party, and Rand doesn’t really care,” said David Adams, who managed Paul’s 2010 primary campaign. “As soon as Rand decides he wants control of the party, it’s his. He’s not completing that circle.”
Comer, who was the only state lawmaker to endorse Paul in his 2010 primary, agreed. “If Rand wanted it to be his, it would probably be,” Comer said, “but he’s been very supportive of Senator McConnell, very gracious to him.”
Of course, Paul now has added incentive to reengage at the state level. He wants the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow him to simultaneously run for the White House and the Senate in 2016. The problem: Democrats still control the state’s lower chamber. Republicans hope to change that come November.
The marquee matchup this fall, though, will be McConnell versus Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who, at 35, casts herself as the next generation of leadership. Polls show a tight race. McConnell is vulnerable, mostly because of an approval rating that has sagged as low as the low 30s. “Christian Laettner of Duke actually has a better approval rating in the commonwealth than Mitch McConnell does,” Grimes said in an interview. On the trail, she calls him “the senator of yesterday.”
A Bluegrass poll last week showed that 38 percent of Republicans agreed that McConnell “been in office too long and it’s time for him to go.”
In the coming weeks, McConnell will have to lean on Paul to reunite the party and bring those disaffected Republicans back into the fold. It is the same role McConnell played four years ago, when he organized a unity rally after Paul’s primary win left the party divided.
It is, in other words, exactly the kind of job that falls to a party’s leader.