This past March, Kentucky’s state Senate took a vote that was rather important to Rand Paul. The U.S. senator and his allies were seeking to undo a state law that prohibits someone from appearing on the ballot twice at the same time — say, both for president and U.S. Senate. This is a problem for Paul because the Republican is widely expected to run for the White House in 2016 while also seeking reelection to the Senate.
The state Senate in Frankfort is solidly controlled by Republicans, so it was no surprise that the bill passed by a wide margin, with debate lasting only 20 minutes. Yet there was one odd thing about the vote: A single Republican broke ranks with his party to oppose the measure. His name — Sen. Chris Girdler — is less important than his allegiances: Girdler is the former top state operative for the longest-serving member of Kentucky’s congressional delegation, Republican Rep. Harold Rogers, and he is widely seen as Rogers’s proxy in the Statehouse. Girdler did not return my calls for comment, but in Kentucky’s political circles, there was little doubt as to why he’d taken such a public stand against Paul.
“It was on direct order from Hal Rogers,” alleges David Adams, who managed Paul’s 2010 primary campaign. “No doubt about that.” Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who is close to Rogers, was more circumspect when asked about Girdler’s vote. “I noticed,” Beshear told me, repressing a smile.
That Rogers and Paul have an unfriendly rivalry is an open secret among Kentucky politicos. Rogers, a 76-year-old House member with perfectly parted white hair, and Paul, a 51-year-old first-term senator with rumpled brown curls, are a study in contrasts — in appearance, in personality, and, most important, in their politics. “They are,” says Jonathan Miller, a Democrat and a former Kentucky state treasurer, “the perfect emblems of the cleavages that are going on in the Republican Party.”
“It’s a Hatfields and McCoys thing,” says a senior Kentucky Republican who has worked with both men. “They come from opposite ends of our party, and they don’t get along.” One former aide summed up the relationship by describing an awkward Capitol Hill encounter in which the person shared an elevator with Rogers and Paul. Neither man spoke to the other.
ROGERS IS A CLASSIC old-school Republican. The chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he has made a three-decade-long career out of bringing federal dollars to his Appalachian district, one of the poorest in the nation. He has brought home so much bacon that he has a water park named after him in one corner of the district and a complex dubbed the “Taj-Ma-Hal” in another.
Thanks in part to all this largesse, Rogers effectively controls a political machine in eastern Kentucky. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘feared.’ I’d use the word ‘respected,’ ” John David Dyche, a longtime Kentucky political commentator, says of the Rogers operation. “Everyone knew he had clout, so they were appropriately deferential.”
Everyone except Paul — who ran for the Senate by essentially campaigning against everything Rogers represented. In late 2009, when he was still an underdog challenger, Paul took the stage at the Pulaski County GOP picnic, deep in the heart of Rogers’s political territory, and — without mentioning Rogers by name — proceeded to thrash his brand of Republicanism as the long-serving congressman sat on the dais no more than 10 feet away. Paul called for term limits. He bashed bloated appropriations bills. He denounced any politician who saw himself as an “errand boy “… to bring home the pork.”
And Paul wasn’t done. He did the same thing all over again in February 2010 at a McCreary County GOP event, also in Rogers’s district, again as Rogers looked on. Asked later by Fox News if he was talking specific- ally about Rogers, Paul replied, with his trademark smirk, “I try not to refer to individuals in particular but if — if they — if the message is coming to them, they should be listening.”
Someone was. Paul was scratched from that year’s Pulaski County Lincoln Day Dinner, an event put together by Rogers’s allies. Rogers delivered the keynote address instead. (That snub did not, however, stop Paul from easily carrying Pulaski County in the 2010 GOP primary.)
But perhaps the sharpest area of disagreement between the two politicians has not been about pork: Rogers has implemented the House’s earmark ban and, in keeping with the political climate, he now touts his record of cutting spending. Instead, it has been about drug policy. “I think the drug issue has been a point of contention between the two camps and the two men,” says Ronnie Ellis, a veteran Kentucky political reporter.
Rogers is a law-and-order Republican who has directed money to policing groups in eastern Kentucky, one of the most drug-ravaged regions in the nation. He’s gone on drug raids in a National Guard helicopter, pushed legislation to make it harder to buy cold medicines that can be converted into meth, and, a decade ago, launched a nonprofit, Operation UNITE, to combat substance abuse.
The libertarian-leaning Paul, on the other hand, has criticized the war on drugs, pushed to recognize state medical-marijuana programs, backed legalizing industrial hemp (an effort that Rogers has opposed), and sponsored sentencing-reform legislation for drug offenders. “I will not sit idly by and watch the war on drugs consume, confine, and define our young men,” Paul wrote in a recent op-ed.
Neither lawmaker agreed to an interview for this story, though their offices did arrange for them to sit down, one-on-one, with each other after I told them about the piece. (It’s not clear when they had last met alone, if ever, and neither office would say, although they do occasionally appear together at group events.) From the safety of sanitized statements, both men elided any friction between them. “Chairman Rogers and I are working together every day to make life better in Kentucky,” Paul said. Rogers was equally diplomatic. “Congress is made up of many different viewpoints representing the diversity of this nation — this is a democracy, after all,” he said. “Senator Paul and I agree on many issues and our No. 1 priority is progress for Kentucky.”
There are also some signs that temperatures have cooled in recent years. As with many political rivalries, this one has been stoked by staff as much as the principals, and several Kentucky Republicans noted that the tenor had improved with the retirement of one of Paul’s chief behind-the-scenes antagonists, former top Rogers aide Bob Mitchell. (Mitchell declined to comment.)
Still, there’s no doubt that the two men represent extremely different visions of the Republican future. “I’ve never seen them interact — and that says something,” says a senior Kentucky Republican. “They really just operate so separately. They’re in totally different worlds.” Adams, meanwhile, isn’t buying that the rivalry is a thing of the past. “My understanding is that the animosity from the Rogers camp is as intense today as it was in 2009, if not more so,” he told me.
Back in 2009, that might have been a problem for Paul. But it’s a sign of how far and how fast he has risen that, at this point, a feud with one of the most powerful congressmen in his own party doesn’t seem likely to hurt him. The fact that Paul successfully persuaded every Republican state senator — save Rogers’s onetime staffer — to vote in favor of letting him run for two offices in 2016 shows just how much has changed in Kentucky. For Adams, it’s clear evidence that his former boss now has the upper hand. “Five years ago, it would have looked like a David and Goliath in the other direction,” he says of the legislative fight. “Today, Hal Rogers is not even a mosquito in Rand Paul’s world.”