Primary season might be dawning upon us, but few campaigns have gotten heated on the airwaves as of now. For instance, I don’t believe that Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak have started using their huge war chests to go up on TV - and we are just ten weeks from Election Day.
One state in which local TV channels are starting to reap some benefits is Kentucky. While the GOP’s Senate primary was not expected to be particularly contested when the seat opened up, Trey Grayson and Rand Paul are now waging an all-out battle that spilled over to the airwaves this week. And while other candidates who’ve started airing ads have chosen to first go down the route of the positive introductory spot (see Sue Lowden in Nevada), Grayson and Paul are both gone negative at once.
The subject of their on-air dispute: coal. With both candidates having been caught on camera expressing some anti-coal sentiment, footage was bound to pop up on the campaign trail. (Coal is a major enough issue in Appalachia that West Virginia’s Democratic Governor Jon Manchin said this week that he is worried Allan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, longtime congressmen of his own party, could lose in November because “they have not articulated [their support for coal] as forceful as they should.” Talk about a vote of confidence for your party’s ticket.)
Grayson fired the first salvo with an ad that features comments Paul made in 2008 when on the stump supporting his father’s presidential candidacy. Before pledging to fight “Obama’s war on coal,” Grayson shows viewers footage of Paul declaring: “Coal’s very dirty form of energy. You may have coal around you that needs to be monitored. But I mean the thing is it’s probably one of the leat favorable forms of energy.”
That’s some damaging footage for Paul to deal with, so how can he possibly respond? What about an ad that features comments made by Grayson, not only about coal but also about a willingness to work with Barack Obama (gasp!). First, we see Grayson declare that, “As some of these coal power plants are being phased out, we need to bring nuclear on.” Then, the ad jumps to an unrelated video on which Grayson declares,”I look forward to doing my part as a Secretary of State and as a citizen of working with President Obama.” The ad concludes: “A friend of Obama? No friend of coal.”
From the perspective of coal defenders, Grayson’s comments are far less incriminating than Paul’s since he did not express any hostility towards that form of energy. Yet, his comment could very well be perceived as a fatalistic response to mining’s decline - certainly not the type of passionate defense of the coaling industry Kentuckians (and West Virginians like Manchin) are hoping to see.
Similarly, it is somewhat depressing that Grayson’s comments on Obama could be used against him in a campaign ad, as they are in no way remarkable - nor do they in any way seem like a warm embrace of the president or an endorsement of any of his policies (contra, say, Charlie Crist’s physically hugging Obama over the stimulus), but conservative voters have come to expect such frontal opposition that such footage could very well damage Grayson. After all, they fit well in Paul’s efforts to portray himself as the conservative who right-wing voters can trust because he is an outsider and an activist, while Grayson is part of the GOP establishment that Tea Partiers feel is too cozy with the Democratic elites.
Another remarkable aspect of this Grayson-Paul back-and-forth is the speed with which the latter’s campaign unveiled a response; who could have expected when he declared his candidacy that he would have the financial capacity to pull off such a solid campaign? In any case, If Grayson was hoping that Paul’s strength would dissipate as we got further away from the 2008 cycle, during which Ron Paul’s supporters were an organizational sensation, this past week-end must have forced him to realize it would not be the case: At the yearly CPAC conference, Ron Paul for the first time won the presidential straw poll, breaking Mitt Romney’s 3-year winning streak. This obviously does not mean much insofar as a 2012 bid is concerned, nor does it provide direct help for Rand Paul’s Senate campaign, but it simply serves as one more reminder that the libertarian groups that have allowed the family to become such formidable figures within the Republican universe should not be underestimated.
The scope of a high-turnout 50-state presidential primary might have been to large for this organizational muscle to translate well at the polls, but now that we are in a one-state campaign (in a medium-sized state no less) that should be decided by relatively low turnout, Rand Paul’s grassroots support could be more decisive - especially when we consider that the GOP electorate is in a different mood this year than it was in 2008 and that this activist base is being complemented by more institutional support than Ron Paul could have dreamed about: Sarah Palin endorsed Rand’s Senate candidacy last month. It is unclear whether the former Governor will actively campaign for Paul, though groups like Dick Armey’s Freedom Works should help him.
One key question that could go a long way towards deciding primary: Will the Club for Growth intervene? Speculation that the conservative PAC would endorse Paul dates back to November, when both candidates reportedly met with Club officials in Washington, but they have yet to do so despite already making decisions to intervene in Utah and Florida’s Senate primaries, both of which will be held much after Kentucky’s. Its reluctance to endorse Paul is perhaps due to the fact that Grayson himself is a Club member, and that he doesn’t seem as obviously offensive to conservatives than someone like Crist and arguably Bennett’s by Utah standards.