Democratic leaders were relishing the Republican primary victory of tea party candidate Rand Paul, suggesting he will be an easy target for them in November for Kentucky's U.S. Senate seat.
In a closely watched race across the country as a test of the tea party movement's strength, Paul easily defeated GOP establishment favorite Trey Grayson Tuesday night, garnering about 59 percent of the vote.
Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, said he believes Paul is better for Democrats to face in the general election. He said there is a stark contrast between Rand and his opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway.
"Rand Paul would abolish the Department of Education, would disband the Federal Reserve, and would end farm subsidies for Kentucky's farmers," Menendez said in a statement. "Rand Paul may love the national media spotlight but he has shown no interest in growing Kentucky's economy or creating new jobs."
Conway won a hard-fought primary with 44 percent of the vote to Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo's 43 percent. Mongiardo barely lost six years ago to retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. Conway pointed out to supporters about his chances in the fall that he drew nearly 221,000 votes to Paul's 192,000 across the state.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine called Paul an "extreme candidate" who used a small part of the electorate to win over Grayson, but not in the fall.
"Rand Paul's positions fail to resonate beyond the far-right Republican segment of the electorate that supported him tonight," said Kaine.
For his part, Paul sounded unwavering in his conservative views heading into the race against Conway.
"People are already saying now you need to weave and dodge, now you need to switch," Paul said in his victory speech. "Now you need to give up your conservative message. You need to become a moderate. You need to give up the tea party. ... The tea party message is not a radical message. It's not an extreme message. What is extreme is a $2 trillion deficit."
Paul, the son of Texas congressman and former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, struck a chord with conservative Republican voters frustrated with soaring budget deficits. Paul promised to vote only for a balanced budget, to eliminate congressional earmarks and to institute term limits. Grayson said it isn't practical to vote only for a balanced budget, objected to the elimination of earmarks and opposed term limits.
Paul's win gives a tea party activist a key win in a statewide election that could embolden the fledgling political movement in other states. The Kentucky election was being watched around the country, especially after tea party activists helped to defeat three-term Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah and forced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to abandon the GOP to make an independent run for the Senate.
GOP Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sees Paul as a strong candidate in contrast to Conway who, Cornyn said, "has made clear that he will serve as another rubber stamp for President Obama."
"If he makes it to Washington, voters can expect Conway to simply perpetuate the Democrats' failed record of higher taxes, skyrocketing job loss, and bloated government bureaucracy."
Paul began the race as a long shot against Grayson, the perceived front-runner in the race to replace Bunning, a 78-year-old former major league pitcher who opted not to seek a third term under pressure from Republican leaders who considered him politically vulnerable. Bunning ended up bucking them by endorsing Paul.
Bunning clearly relished Paul's victory, calling him a "strong conservative who will be his own man in Washington and work to end the bailouts, stop wasteful spending."
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.