For almost a year, Mitch McConnell’s protege Trey Grayson has been the standard bearer of the state GOP establishment in the Kentucky senate primary. But today on Meet The Press, his benefactor seemed to suggest that that the outcome of Grayson’s battle with Tea Party favorite Rand Paul might not matter much one way or another.
“We don’t have incumbency on the line in Kentucky,” he said. “We have two non-incumbents running for an open seat.”
That’s probably not the view of many of Paul’s supporters. They appear poised turn the race in McConnell’s home state into the second anti-establishment victory over the GOP mainstream since Sen. Bob Bennett was deposed at the Utah Republican convention May 8.
McConnell appears to be preparing to embrace Paul, showcasing the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” style of an experienced politician. He offered somewhat tepid support for Grayson on MTP, while making it clear he thinks Paul can win in the fall.
Other establishment Republicans have already resigned themselves to a Paul win, with most at last week’s GOP state party chair convention near Washington saying they’re ready to get behind Paul in November, despite the fact that most of the party’s official machinery is still working for Grayson.
McConnell publicly endorsed Grayson just a few weeks ago, cutting an ad for him that’s running the final days before the May 18 primary. On Meet The Press this morning, McConnell reaffirmed that support — but also tried to make nice with Paul at the same time.
“I don’t know who’s going to win,” McConnell told NBC’s David Gregory. “I think Trey Grayson will be a stronger candidate in November, but I expect Kentucky’s going to be in a pretty Republican mood this fall.”
He even had nice things to say about the tea partiers that have helped push Paul into the lead, mainly by attacking establishment leaders like McConnell.
“It’s an important movement in the country and I think it’s going to really help us in November” McConnell said when asked about the tea party’s influence on the race.
Whatever the central storyline in Kentucky, McConnell said there’s one thing the race is not about — him. Asked about the chances for establishment Republicans like him in future, he said a Paul win in Kentucky doesn’t mean much.
“It reminds me of when the president went into Massachusetts,” McConnell said, referring to President Obama’s last-ditch efforts to defeat Scott Brown in the race to replace Ted Kennedy in January. “I don’t think anybody seriously thinks the president won’t carry Massachusetts next time.”
Note: This post has been updated.