This week’s gubernatorial primary election in Kentucky produced all of the excitement of a three-hour Joe Biden dissertation on nuclear non-proliferation. And, while there may be some comic value to hearing Biden speak for any length of time, yesterday’s poll results in the Commonwealth should be no laughing matter for Tea Party faithful.
Only one year ago, Rand Paul rolled to victory in the Bluegrass State on a tidal wave of Tea Party-brewed enthusiasm. Paul’s election was marked by streets lined with yard signs and mailboxes filled to capacity with campaign flyers. Voters who would usually be considered outside the universe of regular primary participants flocked to the polls in record numbers.
This past week, it was deadly quiet in Kentucky. Only a few fliers landed in homes. “For Sale” signs outnumbered campaign signs. A casual observer driving through Kentucky would have been hard-pressed to determine that an election was even on the horizon.
The lack of candidate activity was reflected in the final vote tally. The 9% turnout in Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial primary reflects the apathy that was present in the state prior to last year’s electoral Rand-slide.
If Tuesday had been the Kentucky Derby, the recap of the race for the horse named “Tea Party” would state “failed to rally.”
The primary was a three-way affair. The leader of the Kentucky Senate, David Williams, paired up with the Commissioner of Agriculture (and University of Kentucky basketball legend) Richie Farmer. The Tea Party got behind Louisville businessman Phil Moffett. Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw, who is a former aid to Senator Bob Dole, rounded out the field.
Williams ran a traditional campaign, bus touring the state while taking full advantage of his running mate’s legendary hoops status. They raised lots of money, sent out direct mail and went up on television. Williams might be the best stump speaker in America and he uses his talents well.
The folks who had started Rand Paul mania got behind Phil Moffett early, but that is where Moffett’s similarities with Kentucky’s junior senator ended. His campaign never really caught fire.
Moffett has a pleasant personality — a fresh face with business experience and new ideas. He would be a great dinner guest.
Unfortunately for the campaign, Phil Moffett did not have the political zip of Rand Paul. You had to search hard to find the name of his running mate on the campaign website.
Money did not flow and the campaign never gathered sufficient grassroots momentum to make a move. The turnout numbers tell the story. Those who identify themselves as Tea Partiers either voted for the establishment Republican, or more likely than not, stayed home.
Holsclaw and Moffett combined to keep the Williams-Farmer ticket under 50%, but there are no moral victories in politics. There are only winners and losers. On Tuesday, the establishment candidate won and the Tea Party candidate lost.
The Tea Party needs a Karl Rove
Those active in the Tea Party will not like hearing this, but they need to better understand the mechanics of politics. An organized party is against everything in the movement’s wheelhouse. The results in Kentucky indicate how quickly the political landscape can change.
Last year, many in the Tea Party chastised Karl Rove over his comments about the electability of candidates like Christine O’Donnell. They let their distaste of politics and those who make a living at it stand in the way of campaign reality. Today they refuse to admit that Rove was right. They are probably appalled to think that they need people like him to win.
Rand Paul “got it” last year. After winning the primary, Paul shed his initial campaign team and put together a group of seasoned political professionals who understood the mechanics of winning a fall election. There was quite a bit of friction between the hired guns and the volunteers. Paul knew he needed both and made it work.
Team Paul raised money and pushed voters to the poll on a strong message and grassroots organization. He ran a real campaign.
Good ideas are fine for think tank panel debates and crafting white papers. But good ideas don’t win campaigns. Guys like Karl Rove do.
Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at book stores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.