With polls showing Rand Paul ahead by double digits in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary, the Republican party establishment that once feared him is now ready to hug and make up. Less than a year ago, twenty-three Republican Senators — including the chair of the NRSC, John Cornyn — held a joint fundraiser for the party’s choice in the race, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Now, Republican operatives in Washington say they’d be happy to have Paul on the ticket.
At the RNC’s annual state party chair’s meeting this week, party leaders from across the country were chatting about the Kentucky race, which pits the tea party — and supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul — against the establishment GOP represented by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But as the race has shifted in favor of Paul, top Republicans are preparing to embrace him the same way they embraced Marco Rubio when it became clear the voters were with him in Florida.
At a reporter’s roundtable at the RNC event on Tuesday, RNC political director Gentry Collins said that he didn’t much care who got the nod in Kentucky. Either way, he said, Republicans are in a good position to win in November. Other state party officials walking around Tuesday’s event had a similar take on the race as Collins. Several state chairs I spoke with said that early concerns that Paul might be a tough sell to a general electorate have evaporated making it easy for Republicans to get behind him.
“The polls show we have two great candidates,” Collins told reporters.
He’s not wrong. The TPM Poll Averages for the general election show Paul and Grayson easily defeating either of the Democrats currently vying for their party’s nomination, attorney general Jack Conway and Lt. Gov Dan Mongiardo.
It’s a subtle change in rhetoric, but quite a leap for the establishment party, who have seen their man who have seen their man — Grayson — suggest Paul would be downright dangerous choice for Republicans. Grayson still has his “Rand Paul: Strange Ideas” website up, which highlights the ways his campaign says Paul is radically different from the mainstream GOP.
On Grayson’s list of Paul’s outsider ideas? “Opposes Federal Drug Enforcement” and “Support For All Things Ron Paul.”
McConnell officially endorsed Grayson early this month and is still campaigning for him to win. In an ad he cut for Grayson, he told voters that “We need Trey’s conservative leadership to help turn back the Obama agenda.”
Other GOP leaders are starting to say that Paul is capable of being on the team, however. It’s a line you’re likely to hear with increasing frequency as polls continue to show Paul ahead in the primary.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) addressed the state party chairs on Tuesday night. After his speech, he said that regardless of the more radical things Paul has said, he’ll likely be welcomed into the establishment if and when he wins the race to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.
Asked about Paul’s threat to vote for someone else besides McConnell for caucus leader if he reached the Senate — the exact kind of rhetoric that has made Paul a success with the GOP’s angry fringe and helped the establishment GOP to back Grayson — Thune chalked it up to primary politics and said that the party would back Paul if he wins. Thune said he expected Paul will vote for McConnell to remain leader if he makes it to the Senate.
It all sounds very similar to what happened with Rubio, who started his campaign as an outsider running against party favorite, Gov. Charlie Crist. As Rubio picked up steam, his establishment supporters first stopped saying much about the race and then started saying nice things about Rubio, while also reiterating their support for Crist. The stage was set for a full embrace of Rubio by the establishment when Crist dropped out of the race to run against Rubio as an independent.
Now, with just a few days to go before Paul’s potential upset win over Grayson — who still carries the support of the establishment — there are signs that the party is preparing to give Paul the Rubio treatment. The Kentucky GOP has scheduled a “unity rally” for the Saturday after the election, where the establishment will celebrate whomever wins the primary.
Paul says he’s ready to be a part of the establishment team, too. Asked about McConnell in an interview with The Daily Caller, Paul suggested bygones will be bygones if he wins the primary.
“I mean right now, it’s hard to get too excited,” Paul said, “because [McConnell’s] working hard to try to keep me from winning the primary, but I think after the primary, I’m a big enough person that we can work together.”