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Rand Paul’s popularity spurs hope and debate in Kentucky

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By Scott Wartman

The Kentucky Enquirer

Kentucky Republicans have enjoyed the national attention U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has garnered in the past month.

With just eight electoral votes, Kentucky doesn’t often get mentioned in presidential politics.

But Paul, R-Ky., has elevated his profile in the past month and generated growing interest in his possible run for the White House in 2016.

He rode a wave of enthusiasm from his filibuster two weeks ago into the Conservative Political Action Conference last week and won its straw poll with 25 percent of the vote, just ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 23 percent.

“I think it would be an honor to have the right candidate for the presidential ticket from Kentucky,” said Rick Brueggemann, chairman of the Boone County Republican Party.

While the straw poll doesn’t necessarily suggest who the presidential nominee will be – Paul’s father, Ron Paul, won it twice – many Republicans believe it reflects shifting sentiment among Republican voters that bodes well for the Kentucky senator.

The Republican National Committee on Monday came out with a report that highlighted the need to change its message to a younger, more diverse audience. Whether Paul’s brand of Libertarian-leaning politics will become the new face of the GOP remains unknown.

But Paul is leading the charge in this re-evaluation by the GOP, said Greg Shumate, chairman of the Kenton County Republicans.

“I think a number of issues are being re-evaluated,” Shumate said. “One is immigration. I think another is the whole idea of national defense and the image of the Republican Party as war hawks. Some attitudes are changing in both those areas.”

A younger GOP?

Many GOP members believe he’s attracted a younger group of voters to the party.

Paul’s stance on legalizing industrial hemp and his charisma appeal to younger people, said Ray Hartke, of Florence, who volunteered for Rand Paul’s successful 2010 campaign for Senate.

“A lot of younger people are becoming very aware of the appearance of what seems to be a police state,” Hartke said. “I think younger people are more supportive of a candidate who is going to support the Constitution and limited government intrusion.”

CPAC has a young membership, and the straw poll shows Paul’s pull among that demographic, said Mike Duncan, former Republican National Committee chairman from Inez, Ky.

“I think the first impact will be in 2014 when Sen. Paul helps re-elect Mitch McConnell,” Duncan said. “A real impact he has is the new people in the party who haven’t been involved in politics. It helps the down ballot. It helps potentially to elect a Republican House in Frankfort for the first time in 100 years.”

Many Republicans said it’s too early to decide whether they would vote for Paul but said he should be considered at the top of the GOP’s list.

Shumate said he will support Paul or anyone else who would give the GOP the best chance of winning the White House in 2016.

“I think my main focus as a Republican voter will be what the Republican Party and its candidates need to do to win the presidential election next time,” Shumate said. “If Rand is the guy that has the best shot at winning, I would be extremely excited.”

Tea party clout grows

The tea party and Libertarian contingent believe Paul’s filibuster and performance at CPAC cemented their position in the Republican Party.

Emily Shelton, of the Grassroots Tea Party of Boone County, said the response from Republican leaders such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, who called Paul and other like-minded senators “wacko birds,” shows the power Paul and the tea party movement have.

“I guess the first battle we conservatives have to win is the Republican Party,” Shelton said. “It is having impact and getting a favorable response from the nation. You can see that by how they criticize Rand Paul, how seriously they’re taking the positive response he’s gotten. Because of that response, it is inspiring a lot of us that there’s hope.”

Paul’s filibuster over his opposition on the use of drones to target citizens on American soil helped bring Liberterian issues to the fore, said Ken Moellman, a Pendleton County resident and chairman of the Libertarian Party of Kentucky.

“It seems he wants to move the Republican Party in a more Libertarian direction on a number of issues,” Moellman. “I like how he’s focusing on issues Republicans and Democrats have glossed over that are important to the American people. The filibuster on drones launched his newfound fame.”

Democrats see an
advantage

Others, however, think Paul’s popularity embodies a growing schism in the GOP between the establishment and the tea party.

Col Owens, chairman of the Kenton County Democrats, thinks it will work toward the Democrats’ advantage.

“I do believe the party is very divided,” Owens said. “As it goes forward, it is not clear how it’s going to work out. I think we should be able to take advantage of that. I think Dems, generally speaking, are more united in their convictions about values and principles than Republicans are.”

Republicans, however, think Paul shows the variety of Republican opinions and discounted the idea of a deep divide in the party.

“I’ve read the same stories about Republicans and Democrats in the 40 years I’ve been involved in politics,” Duncan said. “These are the typical stories people write, often to fill space. Politics is about addition and having a coalition of different viewpoints. There are always different parts of a party.”