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Rand Paul's Crucible

How does a radical libertarian win in deep-purple Kentucky?

Rand Paul has had a rough time adapting to life as a Senate candidate. Since he's become a national figure, the Kentucky ophthalmologist has had to compromise his strictly libertarian ideological attitudes—for instance reversing his stance on the necessity of the Civil Rights Act and shying away from previous comments about a secret plan to build a NAFTA superhighway. But it's not just the media fact-checkers and the tender sensibilities of mankind that have caused Paul trouble: The political geography of Kentucky is such that, in order to win, he has to moderate his ideological stands in order to please key blocs of Kentucky voters.

It's often forgotten, but Kentucky's political environment is not tailor-made for Republican landslides. The state has roughly 600,000 more registered Democrats than members of the GOP, and only a small pool of independent voters, forcing Kentucky Republicans to make their careers out of winning a sizeable portion of the Democratic base. Since the Southern realignment of the 1960s, Kentucky has elected only one Republican governor (Ernie Fletcher, who served from 2003 to 2007, was so scandal-ridden that he lost re-election and left the state party in shambles). And when Mitch McConnell won his first Senate race in 1984—creating the blueprint that Republicans have used to win statewide races ever since—both Senate seats were held by Democrats.

That blueprint works as follows: A GOP candidate must start by turning out core Republican voters in two areas: the southwestern strip of Kentucky, which is the only "culturally Southern" part of the state (Bowling Green was the provisional capital of the Confederate state of Kentucky during the Civil War), and the northern pocket of the state, which is a very socially conservative suburb of Cincinnati. From there, the candidate has to build outward and run up large margins in three key swing areas: the region around Fort Knox, which is heavily populated by national security voters; Appalachian eastern Kentucky, which is heavily reliant on government "pork-barrel" spending; and the moderate suburbs around Lexington and Frankfort (the capital), which are classic swing zones, populated by wealthier suburbanites who tend to be Democrats, but are partial to the mild-mannered conservatism of McConnell.

Especially since Rand Paul is facing Jack Conway, an appealing moderate Democrat with Kentucky roots and a classically American demeanor (think: Marlboro Man), he will have to shape his campaign in a way that is very sensitive to this political geography. In order to appeal to voters in these swing areas, he will have to moderate his opinions and reframe some of his deeply held radical beliefs. Here’s a closer look at the dilemmas he faces in each district:

The GOP Base

The South (First and Second Districts)

This culturally Southern area will probably be the most favorable to Rand Paul. It includes Paul's home base of Bowling Green, where he's lived since 1993. His wife Kelley is also from nearby Russellville.

Even so, Jack Conway's campaign seems to believe that Paul has some weaknesses here. Bowling Green is home to a big General Motors manufacturing plant—the plant was saved when Obama rescued GM from going under—and the area's social conservatives may be uncomfortable with Paul calling George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives “a horrible mistake. In the early stages of the campaign, Conway has been targeting southwestern Kentucky, building a ground game aimed at holding on to as many socially conservative Democrats as possible.

The Religious Suburbs (Fourth District)

The Fourth District in the north is about 95 percent white and very socially conservative. (It is home to the famous museum of creationism, which opened in 2007.) Northern Kentucky voters are fiercely loyal to their native sons, such as the Roman Catholic former baseball star, Senator Jim Bunning. This poses a problem for Rand Paul, the Presbyterian from Bowling Green who believes in radical personal freedom.

To appeal to these social conservatives, Paul has been playing up the fact that he is pro-life and downplaying the more libertarian aspects of his worldview. Paul identifies as “100% pro-life,” saying that “abortion is taking the life of an innocent human being.” But Paul’s actual stance on abortion issues is more nuanced than he claims. For instance, he has deemphasized his support for the “morning-after pill,” which pro-life groups oppose, by saying that he is still opposed to “government funding” of the pharmaceutical. He told the Middlesboro Daily News, “in cases of rape, trying to prevent pregnancies is obviously the best thing. The morning-after pill works successfully most of the time. Ultimately we do better if we do have better education about family planning.” While this view is not out of the mainstream for a Republican, he was heavily criticized by Kentucky Right to Life, and he has more or less changed the subject by focusing on the more culture war-friendly aspects of his paleolibertarian creed, such as his virulent opposition to immigration.

The Swing Zones

The Military Bases (Second District)

The area around Fort Knox, which contains many of the state's 350,000 veterans, is filled with voters who support robust military spending. For Rand Paul, winning this area over will be a challenge. In the past, Paul criticized the Pentagon budget, supported his father's critiques of "American imperialism," and sprinkled his speech with lines like, ”Does that mean you have a blank check for the military-industrial complex?" Now he appears to be hedging his bets, explaining that he thinks “the most important function of the federal government is national defense." (A nice sleight of hand, since Paul doesn't think the government should perform many other functions at all.) Paul has also tried to sound hawkish by talking tough about immigration, saying that “our greatest national security threat is our lack of security at the border.” Don’t be surprised if Conway tries to outflank Paul to the right on national security.

Appalachia (Fifth District)

The Fifth District, which encompasses the Appalachian mountain range that runs along the eastern section of the state, is critically important for Paul. This is one of the poorest regions of the country and many voters here could not get by without government assistance. (The median household income in the district is about $27,000.) Every time Rand Paul crusades against excessive government spending, you have to wonder if it is losing him more votes than it is winning him.

This district can be divided in two: “The Old Fifth” comprises the western half of the district, which is a traditional Republican bastion dating back to the Civil War, when its residents were Union stalwarts. (No, that attachment hasn't worn off yet.) The other half of the district, deeper into the heart of Appalachia, is far more hospitable to Democrats—or Republicans who offer government largesse. McConnell, who brags about how he can bring home government money, uses the far eastern region as a buffer in case of less-than-stellar turnout among national security and social conservatives. (He doesn't win big here, but he does aim to split enough of the vote to make a difference: In 2008, for instance, he received 48 percent of the ballots in notoriously poverty-stricken Letcher country, and that was a Democratic year.) Contrast that with the trials of Senator Jim Bunning, who was trounced in eastern Kentucky—having spent his career crusading against government waste—and almost lost his campaign for reelection.

The Moderate Suburbs (Third and Sixth Districts)

These districts are the key to any Kentucky Senate campaign. The Third District encompasses Louisville, a Democratic bastion, but the city is ringed by moderate-to-conservative suburbs that are a must-win for any Republican candidate. McConnell has managed to hang on to them, in part because he hails from here and served as a local county judge before he ran for Senate. While these voters are relatively conservative, it would be a mistake to think they’re inclined to vote for a hard-right candidate. And when you consider that Conway, much like McConnell, is from the Louisville suburbs, there’s plenty of reason for Paul to worry.

The Sixth District is similar. It encompasses Lexington, where the University of Kentucky is located, and Frankfort, the state capital. In addition to college students, it is filled with suburbanites who are partial to a certain type of genteel suburban conservative—and they may not take kindly to anything that makes Paul seem like a radical, such as his efforts to distance himself from McConnell or his unconventional views about popular government initiatives.

Indeed Conway seems to be pushing the campaign narrative in this direction, portraying himself as the moderate, mainstream figure and Paul as the eccentric radical. "If you're a farmer in Western Kentucky right now, then you can't afford Rand Paul because he disagrees with just about all the programs of the Department of Agriculture," he said at a recent campaign stop. "If you're a young person ... who needs a Pell Grant for college ... then you can't afford Rand Paul because he wants to do away with the Department of Education."

Paul certainly has some important advantages in this race: The political environment is tilted heavily toward Republicans this year, and he benefits from a huge enthusiasm gap. But he seems to be losing ground. A recent PPP poll has Paul and Conway dead even, and Conway has nearly twice as much cash on hand. What was once thought of as little more than a victory lap for the Tea Party movement is suddenly a close race. Chalk that up, in part, to closer scrutiny of his beliefs from news organizations. But also chalk it up to the political geography of Kentucky.

Adam de Jong is an intern for The New Republic

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