The tea party is looking to the Kentucky Derby state to finish off its own Triple Crown of victories.
Fresh off its successes in Florida and Utah, the movement is a driving force behind the Senate candidacy of Rand Paul, the son of Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul. The younger Paul, a small-town eye doctor with no elective experience, is up against the GOP establishment — well-funded primary rival Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state, who has the backing of the biggest GOP name in the Bluegrass State, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
A Paul win in Tuesday's primary would be the strongest sign yet that the tea party activists are on a roll after defeating three-term Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah last Saturday and forcing once popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to abandon the GOP for an independent Senate bid last month.
It also would be a wake-up call, if somehow still needed, for Republican incumbents facing challenges from movement-backed candidates six months before the midterm elections.
"I have a message from the tea party to those in D.C.," says Rand Paul. "A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We're coming to take our government back."
McConnell's clout is on the line after he pushed then-endangered Sen. Jim Bunning to retire, endorsed Grayson and cut a campaign ad for the candidate.
Paul, 47, is the epitome of a tea party candidate. He's a political outsider who favors cutting taxes, ending financial bailouts of private corporations and putting a stop to congressional earmarks.
"Everybody I talk to, they've just taken to him like a duck to water," said Harlan resident Tim Rice, who has a Paul yard sign outside his small welding shop in the eastern Kentucky coalfields. "He just comes across as honest. I don't know of a Senate candidate in the country who has the philosophy he has. He is a true constitutional conservative. He understands that what I earn is mine, and what I do with it is my choice."
Bunning has endorsed Paul, saying Kentucky needs a strong, principled conservative "not beholden to the special interests and Beltway insiders."
Grayson has the backing of McConnell, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Rep. Hal Rogers, a political favorite in heavily Republican southeastern Kentucky. The 38-year-old also espouses conservative policies of limited government spending, opposition to abortion and support for gun rights — and he's not ready to cede the activists' votes to Paul.
"Nobody owns the tea party," Grayson said.
With the primary looming, Grayson has a clear advantage in campaign dollars — $820,374 cash on hand at the end of April. He also took in $66,700 through the first week of May.
Paul has relied on tea party activists, Facebook and other social media to raise $2.7 million, much of it in small donations from outside Kentucky. But he had only $169,400 on hand at the end of April, collecting an additional $15,400 in the first week of May.
Polls show Paul with a double-digit lead but nearly 20 percent of likely Republican voters undecided. The winner will face one of two prominent Democrats, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo or Attorney General Jack Conway.
"To me, the race is about who's going to be the best candidate for the Republican Party, who can best articulate the views of the majority of Republicans," Grayson said.
Elizabethtown resident Mike Harris, who has a Grayson sign on his front lawn, insists his candidate would be the strongest Republican candidate in the general election.
"I'm not an anti-Rand Paul guy," said Harris, an orthodontist. "I think Trey Grayson gives Republicans the best chance of winning this seat. A Republican must win this seat, because I am very concerned about what the Democrats are doing to our country."
In a sometimes testy debate on Monday, Grayson accused Paul of wanting to release terrorists to their home countries and said Paul isn't concerned that Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons. Grayson also questioned Paul's credentials as an abortion opponent.
Paul countered that Grayson had distorted his positions. Paul said he wants suspected terrorists tried by military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, that he supports sanctions to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and that he took his first public stand against abortion as a teenager.
Paul called Grayson's assertions "gutter trash," and chided him saying, "You know it's a lie."
An Iowa-based conservative advocacy group, American Future Fund, is airing an ad in the state that shows a cuckoo clock chiming interspersed with Paul's statements about Iran and terrorism. The group has run ads against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, Democratic candidates and moderate Republicans.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has endorsed Paul. Evangelical leader James Dobson railed against Republican leaders and switched his support to back Paul.
Although Kentucky is solidly Democratic by voter registration, it tends to vote Republican in federal races. The GOP holds both of the state's Senate seats and four of six House seats. Republican John McCain carried the state in the 2008 presidential election with 57 percent.
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