In the midst of the contentious Kentucky Republican primary for Senate that challenged — and ultimately humiliated — Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate demanded Rand Paul promise to kiss his ring if he ever made it to Washington, according to a new story in GQ. Paul refused, and then won the nomination, setting up a dynamic that has left McConnell guessing about what Paul might do next.
From Jason Zengerle’s massive profile of Paul in the October issue of GQ:
During the primary, McConnell’s only meeting with Paul took place in a hangar at the Louisville airport. According to a person familiar with the conversation, McConnell pressed Paul to pledge to vote for him for Republican leader–something Paul refused to do. (Billy Piper, McConnell’s chief of staff, denies that his boss sought Paul’s commitment.) All these months later, Paul still won’t make a firm pledge.
According to Zengerle, Paul’s public ambivalence over backing McConnell for leader is all part of a plan. “The whole question of ‘Will Rand vote for McConnell for leader?’ is a power play,” one “Paul ally” tells GQ. “If Mitch is a little bit on edge, so much the better. He should be.”Since he won the nomination over Trey Grayson, McConnell’s choice in the May primary, Paul has been a little less quick to diss McConnell publicly like he back in the day. At a July candidate forum, Paul actually went so far as to say, “I’m going to go up there and vote for Mitch McConnell” in reference to what he’d do if elected.
Speaking with reporters after the forum, Paul walked that back a bit — returning to the “will he or won’t he?” storyline Zengerle describes.
“People say, ‘Why are you hedging? Why are you not saying this?'” Paul told reporters. “It’s because I want people to know that I am a distinct person and that I will be an independent voice for Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and that I won’t be a rubber stamp for anyone.”
Meanwhile, McConnell remains deeply unpopular with the tea partiers who won Paul the nomination. One leader tells Zengerle that “The next time [McConnell] has an election, he’ll probably have a primary challenger.” That’s not an idle threat considering the shellacking Paul gave Grayson despite McConnell’s extremely public endorsement. As I saw first hand on the ground at Fancy Farm, establishment GOP types still don’t seem to entirely comfortable with Paul, as though they worry he might upset McConnell’s applecart yet again.
The end result is that mainline Republicans in Kentucky are still wary about their nominee to replace the retiring Sen. Jim Bunning. As Zengerle reports, Paul’s “biggest challenge” months after the primary remains “figuring out how to cozy up to the GOP establishment without alienating his rabid base.”
The TPM Poll Average shows Paul leading Conway 47.2-41.5.