Careful what you wish for

This is a column I wrote for The Kentucky Standard, published on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. 

It was shortly after the 2010 primaries when I found myself on the phone with a good friend from Ohio talking about Kentucky politics.

Rand Paul had recently upset the political order of the Kentucky Republican establishment, beating U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s protégé, Trey Grayson. In an interview with National Public Radio, Paul had taken issue with the portion of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits private businesses from discriminating against people based on race, religion or national origin.

That was it, my friend was convinced. Chalk up a win for the Democrats in November. How, after all, could someone so far on the fringe ever carry a statewide election?

First, I should describe my friend. He’s a gifted artist, a former coffee shop owner whose wife is a rock star of some regional note in the Midwest and also recently starred in a movie that opened at Sundance Film Festival this past month. The term bohemian comes to mind when describing him. He is bright and well read, able to carry on a conversation about almost any topic.

But on this particular day, he was incredulous that Paul had actually taken issue with the Civil Rights Act, and even more astounded when I told him it probably would not matter in November’s contest.

You see, like so many people interested and passionate about politics, he mostly discusses the issues with those who share a similar outlook to his own. Both sides do it. Liberals talk to liberals about how out of step the right is with today’s modern society. Conservatives discuss among themselves how the left just doesn’t see the logic or moral imperative behind their beliefs.

I’m thinking the liberal political operatives and activists behind the plot to fund a right-wing primary opponent against McConnell might be falling into the same trap as my friend. Politico reported this week that big Democratic donors, liberal activists and a left-leaning super PAC in the state were telling tea partiers they would finance a primary challenger against McConnell.

The idea these groups have in mind is that some fringe, inexperienced and gaffe-prone political neophyte will unseat Kentucky’s senior senator, who is unpopular with the movement. That would pave the way, in their thinking, for a more moderate Democrat to take the seat. At the very least, a protracted and vicious primary battle might soften McConnell up even should he win the primary, and be so mortally wounded that a Democrat could finish him off.

But this plan sounds a little too clever to me. In recent years, McConnell has tried to sound more like the ideologue. He has drawn successful tea party politicians like Paul and Northern Kentucky’s U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie to his side. He has parroted a lot of the rhetoric that the true believers love.

But make no mistake. McConnell is not a true believer.

Just look at the deal he cut with Vice President Joe Biden to avert the “fiscal cliff” last month. There were many true believers, Paul among them, who were ready, even eager, to plunge the country over the edge in their political zeal.

McConnell is not easy to deal with for Democrats. But he did deal.

The groups behind this idea to fund a right-wing challenge to McConnell had better think long and hard about their strategy. They might not get the rabid caricature they seem to have in mind.

They might wind up funding a candidate who has a chance to carry this state. They might wind up getting what they wish for in the primary, only to shoot themselves in the foot come November.t

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