FRANKFORT, Ky. – For a state that has statues of native sons Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in its Capitol, Kentucky has been perceived as a political backwater for decades, nearly invisible on the national stage.
That’s changed during the tenures of Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, one the U.S. Senate minority leader, the other a tea party champion and potential GOP presidential contender.
The two are fixtures on Sunday morning talk shows. They’re sought-after headliners for GOP fundraisers across the country. Their words and actions are chronicled in print and broadcast news. They’re regularly cheered and jeered by the nation’s bloggers.
Not since the days of Alben Barkley – Senate majority leader through World War II and vice president under Harry S. Truman – has Kentucky struck such a prominent profile in Washington, courtesy of two men who took very different routes to power.
“In both cases, the Kentucky senators wind up mattering more than almost any other duet in the country,” said Washington attorney Martin Gold, who served as counsel to former Senate Majority Leaders Bill Frist and Howard Baker.
McConnell, an Alabama native who grew up in Louisville, got his first taste of politics as a legislative assistant to then-Sen. Marlow Cook in 1968, the year after he finished law school at the University of Kentucky.
McConnell later served two terms as judge-executive in Jefferson County, building a political base to launch his first Senate campaign in 1984. McConnell turned a narrow victory that year into a political revival for Kentucky’s GOP.
Paul, a Pittsburgh native who grew up in Texas, moved to Bowling Green to work as an ophthalmologist in 1993 after graduating from medical school at Duke University.
He was elected to an open Senate seat in 2010. Although Paul had never before run for political office, he had experience working on campaigns for his father, Ron Paul, a former Texas congressman who ran for president three times.
Paul’s race against well-funded Democrat Jack Conway triggered a convergence of the tea party and the Republican establishment. Paul and McConnell, at odds in the 2010 primary, mended fences heading into the general, forming a relationship that holds today.
Paul has remained true to his tea party philosophy of reducing federal spending and opposing taxes. McConnell embraces those same principles and has forged an alliance with Paul. Paul needs McConnell’s connections to the wealthy donor base of the Republican establishment if he runs for president. McConnell needs Paul’s tea party influence to neutralize a primary challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, and, if successful, to energize a likely general election challenge from Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes.
McConnell and Paul have been maneuvering through a political minefield to keep both their Kentucky constituents and national conservatives happy.
“Leadership brings its own headache,” Gold said. “Sometimes it puts people in positions where they’ve got to take an out-front posture, rather than being able to just duck something. But the other side of that is that they automatically have an ability to influence policy. They have a seat at the table for any major policy discussions.”
And that, Gold said, generates clout to get things done for their home state.
It was McConnell who stepped up yet again last month to hammer out a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that ended a partial government shutdown and avert a potential default on U.S. debt that could have dealt an unwelcome economic blow.
And it was Paul who turned the nation’s attention to drones in March with a 13-hour filibuster that sparked discussion from the water cooler to the White House. Two months later, President Barack Obama revamped his administration’s policy on when drones can be used against terrorist targets.
Aides to McConnell and Paul rattle off a list of accomplishments that they say have specifically benefited Kentucky over the past couple of years without incurring costs that would anger the tea party activists.
They won accolades from Kentucky sportsmen this year by thwarting a move by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ban access to the Cumberland River directly below Barkley and Wolf Creek dams where fish congregate in large numbers. For the corps, it was a matter of public safety. For fishermen, it was an outrageous example of government overreach. For McConnell and Paul, it was an opportunity to shine without spending a dime.
McConnell pressured Federal Prison Industries, which uses inexpensive inmate labor, not to compete for contracts to produce military clothing now made at garment factories in Campbellsville and Olive Hill, saving the jobs of some 200 Kentucky workers. In another instance, executives at Cardinal Aluminum Co. in Louisville and NewPage Corp. in Wickliffe praised McConnell for protecting nearly 1,000 jobs by pushing through legislation last year to protect against unfair competition from foreign firms selling products in the U.S. at artificially low prices.
“I think the main point here is that I’m in a position to do those kinds of things,” McConnell told The Associated Press. “Anybody who replaced me wouldn’t be in a position to do these kinds of things for years, if ever.”
Paul, perhaps best known for his stands on big national issues, objected earlier this year when the Lexington Herald-Leader suggested his influence hasn’t benefited Kentucky.
“First, to imply that staggering debt, unbalanced budgets, bankrupt entitlements, broken immigration and a costly foreign policy aren’t ‘Kentucky’ problems is simply wrong,” Paul responded. “Every Kentuckian is affected by these issues. When I fight on big national issues, I am fighting for Kentucky.”
Jesse Benton, a GOP strategist who has managed campaigns for both McConnell and Paul, said the two are examples of how Republicans can come together.
“Our Kentucky senators focus on the many issues that unite us, communicate well, have built a personal friendship, and, in the rare occasion where they disagree, do so in a respectful and constructive way,” Benton said. “Mitch and Rand are both statesman Kentucky can be proud of.”