Bluegrass Battle

Rand Paul’s feud with a powerful Kentucky Republican.

Rep. Harold Rogers (L) Sen. Rand Paul (R)
Charlie Powell
Sept. 5, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.”

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