Would you like to hear the good news for Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, or the not-so-good news first?
Well, we don’t want to be accused of dwelling on the unpleasant, so we’ll start with the good news for Paul.
Paul, who rode the tea party wave to a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2010, is the front runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, according to one recent poll.
The not-so-good news? Paul’s immediate situation places him between the proverbial rock and hard place, all because of a GOP primary challenge to the senior senator from Kentucky and Paul’s new best friend, Mitch McConnell.
First, though, the poll:
Public Policy Polling (PPP), a North Carolina-based firm, did a national poll from July 19-21; and, among the 500 Republicans polled Paul led the potential GOP presidential candidates with 16 percent. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and last year’s GOP vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, came in second with 13 percent support each. Texas senator Ted Cruz – like Paul, a tea party favorite – rolled in with 12 percent, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had 10 percent. No one else was in double figures.
The margin of error in the poll among Republicans was plus or minus 4.3 percent, but, still, 16 percent is pretty good for a potential presidential candidate who started the year at only five percent support.
Support from the GOP’s tea party wing accounts for Paul’s relatively strong showing. The same goes for Cruz.
The bad news for Paul is that, in the PP survey of all voters, Paul was the one Republican who polled the furthest behind the presumptive Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, by eight percentage points. Rubio, Ryan, Christie and Bush all did somewhat better in match-ups with Clinton.
Michael Baranowski, an associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, said he doesn't put much weight behind a poll of GOP presidential contenders taken three years before that nominee will be chosen.
"It's more or less name recognition,'' Baranowski said. "2016 is a long way off. I'd be surprised if he stayed at the top."
Yet there he is, atop the PPP poll.
2016 is also the year Paul would be up for re-election to the U.S. Senate. He has a choice to make – one or the other, unless the Kentucky legislature changes the rules.
In the meantime, he has a more immediate problem.
The problem’s name is Matt Bevin.
Bevin is a Louisville businessman, a partner in a hedge fund group. And, as of this week, he is also a candidate for the U.S. Senate, taking on McConnell in the May 2014 primary election in Kentucky.
It’s an uphill climb for Bevin, a novice at running for office and taking on the minority leader of the U.S. Senate who has been around Capitol Hill for 30 years and has almost unlimited amounts of money to spend.
Nonetheless, McConnell is spending some of it already, with TV ads attacking Bevins. Bevin is firing back with ads of his own.
Some in the McConnell camp are looking past the Bevin challenge to the main event – a general election campaign next fall against Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Secretary of State who is going to be the likely Democratic nominee. And polls show her within striking distance of McConnell, who is considerably less popular in Kentucky right now than the junior senator.
The United Kentucky Tea Party, which includes tea party groups from around the state, and all the northern Kentucky counties, endorsed Bevin immediately; and fired off a letter to a national group, Tea Party Nation, for giving McConnell an endorsement.
In the letter, they are critical of McConnell, the Senate minority leader, for what they call his “willingness to roll over and cede power to President Obama and the liberals in Washington” and blast him for everything from voting for debt ceiling increases under President George W. Bush to cutting a deal with Vice President Biden to avoid the “fiscal cliff” earlier this year.
Paul, the tea party hero of the Commonwealth, has endorsed McConnell. His 2010 campaign manager, Jesse Benton, is now running McConnell’s re-election campaign.
But he is doing a delicate balancing act, making sure he says nothing negative about Bevin, in order not to stir up his tea party base in his home state – or elsewhere around the country where tea party activists are closely watching what is happening in Kentucky.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about (Bevin),’’ Paul told Politico this week. “I think he’s a good family man and does mission work.”
Rand Paul, if he wants to be a serious contender for the GOP nomination in 2016, is going to have to hold his tea party support together; and that means taking a hands-off approach to Bevin. Alienating tea party conservatives is not going to do Paul any good in a battle for a GOP presidential nomination.
Neither is alienating the Republican establishment, which has its physical embodiment in Mitch McConnell.
In other words, Paul will be navigating some choppy waters until this Kentucky GOP primary is over next spring.