Kentucky Death Match

Deep in the heart of coal country, a vicious Senate battle rages, and the heart of the Republican Party is at stake

mitch mcconnell rand paul tea party
Illustration by Sean McCabe
By |

Every March, across the commonwealth of Kentucky, the Republican Party throws a series of Lincoln-Reagan fundraising dinners. Candidates for state and federal office are expected to attend, hobnob, serve themselves from a hot buffet, perhaps enjoy an alcoholic beverage (depending on the wetness or dryness of the particular county), certainly remain standing after "The Star-Spangled Banner" for a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" (which even non-Kentuckians agree to be hands down the greatest of state songs) and, of course, solemnly bow their heads while a local reverend offers a blessing. At the Lincoln-Reagan dinner held this year in Murray, in southwestern Kentucky, the reverend took note of daylight saving time and wondered, "Maybe we should think of national savings time? Father, help us save this nation!"

See the 50 Dumbest Things Right-Wingers Said in 2013

The most Midwestern of the Southern states, Kentucky ranks near the top of the nation in drug-overdose deaths and income inequality. Since Bill Clinton left office, Kentucky has been consistently red when it comes to presidential elections, and the long, slow death of the coal industry, accelerated in recent years by competition from cheap natural gas and regulatory threats from the Obama administration, has made the political landscape only more treacherous for liberals. Yet the state's most popular elected official, Gov. Steve Beshear, is a Democrat who cannily figured out a way to design one of the most successful state health exchanges in the nation, despite the toxicity of President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky. (Beshear is the only Southern governor who did not reject the Obama­care Medicaid expansion.)

Back in Washington, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, once dismissed as a joke from the libertarian fringe, has become the fastest­rising freshman senator since, well, Obama, much to the horror of the Republican establishment. That establishment happens to be more or less embodied by Kentucky's other senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who now faces his toughest re-election in decades, despite his opportunistic embrace of his junior colleague. Could the deep fissures rending the modern GOP, its stumbling old guard versus the ascendant insurgency, be encapsulated more perfectly by any two men?

The Lincoln-Reagan dinner took place in a ballroom on the campus of Murray State University. There was exactly one African-American in the audience, pitchers of water and iced tea graced every table (the county is mostly dry), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, flown in as keynote speaker, worked the room. Passing my table, Perry, who now sports chunky black glasses, leaned over and gave me a hearty attaboy backslap, most likely mistaking me for a western Kentucky Republican. A friendly couple seated at the same table had just been giving me driving directions to Louisville, using the largest gun store in the state (Whittaker's, in Owensboro) as a landmark. The band was playing Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."

For much of the country, Perry is a half-forgotten punch line from the last election, Almost-President Oops, but here in Calloway County, a deeply Republican stronghold, he remains a celebrity. Striding to the podium, he pumps up the room like a motivational speaker, employing a masterful combination of pandering ("Y'all's state song is awesome!"), inspirational storytelling (explaining how Texas' economic boom is due entirely to low taxes and deregulation) and, for moments when conveying special resoluteness is required, just a taste of George W. Bush-style whispering ("America has always been about innovation"), which Perry must have picked up while serving as Bush's lieutenant governor – either that or it's a Texas thing.

Meet the Eight Tea Party Morons Destroying America

Perry has come not only to share the secrets of his success, but also to assist in the bailout of the man who follows him onstage. "Wasn't Rick Perry great?" McConnell asks, pronouncing it "wudn't" but sounding more like a slick, small-town lawyer attempting folksiness in order to impress a jury. Somewhat disappointingly, McConnell speaks at a normal speed, unlike the Jon Stewart impression of him, which hinges on a comically lethargic delivery. This is because of McConnell's widely agreed-upon resemblance to a cartoon turtle. Something about his toothless crease of a smile, the way his chin sits on his throat, seeming to elongate his neck, and a general impression of cold­bloodedness.

If McConnell is re-elected in November, he will begin his sixth term, just as his party could be on the verge of retaking control of the Senate. But a sadness hangs about the minority leader these days. Before the last midterm elections, McConnell told a reporter, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Obviously, that specific policy objective didn't pan out, but the broader theme of McConnell's game plan – doing everything possible to undermine the president's agenda – has been executed with a ruthless precision, thanks, in large part, to McConnell's and his party's willingness to make unprecedented use of the filibuster.

It's been a curious evolution, since McConnell has spent most of his career mastering the dark arts of backroom Washington deal-making, which inevitably requires compromise. But for all his skills as a tactician, McConnell is unloved – and not just by liberals. Here in Kentucky, a recent poll found Barack Obama's approval rating to be a dismal 34 percent – which, astoundingly, makes the president two percentage points more popular than McConnell. When McConnell takes the stage after Perry, the reception is polite but unenthused, as if the dessert cart bears nothing but bowls of unsalted cashews. He delivers reliable applause lines – warning that America is in danger of turning itself "into a Western European country," and insisting the dying coal-mining towns in eastern Kentucky could have been saved but for the Environmental Protection Agency – with all the passion of a mortician.

His weakness with voters, on one level, reflects a generalized bipartisan revulsion with Washington. It turns out that building an entire constituency around government-hating resentment can be dangerous if you've spent the past three decades working in government. "McConnell fatigue has set in," one of the dinner guests tells me. "If he gets the nomination, he has no chance of keeping his seat in November."

The man speaking is Matt Bevin, a Tea Party candidate who is challenging McConnell in the primary. A dapper investment banker, Bevin is far from anyone's Tea Party caricature, despite making predictable noises about Ayn Rand and the national debt. "People will tell you this is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, but it's so much bigger than that," Bevin says. "It's a battle for the heart and soul of the political process! People are hungry for something real. We don't want to stretch this analogy, or it'll get uncomfortable for us, but Mitch McConnell is a naked emperor. What has all of his power and influence been doing for anyone other than himself?"

Bevin trails McConnell badly, but his analysis may turn out to be correct. Assuming McConnell wins the May 20th primary, he will face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's 35-year-old secretary of state, in the general election. Polls have Grimes neck and neck with McConnell, and she's been fundraising at a steady clip, with heavy hitters like Bill Clinton (an old friend of Grimes' father, Jerry Lundergan, who used to run the state Democratic Party) campaigning on her behalf.

Though the opening to the right of McConnell is approximately the size of a crawl space, the senator has been worried about a primary challenge since Rand Paul's upset victory in 2010. His trouble in Kentucky serves as a handy microcosm of the problems tearing apart the GOP as a whole. To members of the Tea Party, McConnell is an establishment hack of the first order, a sellout willing – eager! – to undercut their best efforts to starve the government beast. In February, Sen. Ted Cruz defied McConnell by leading a revolt to block the increase of the debt ceiling, which forced the minority leader into the awkward position of rallying a handful of moderates and siding with the Democrats. Shortly thereafter, McConnell lashed out at the Tea Party in The New York Times, boasting, "We are going to crush them everywhere. I don't think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country." The way to deal with schoolyard bullies, he'd reportedly said, is by punching them in the nose.

McConnell won that battle: As reported in the Times, of the eight Republican senators who face primary challenges this year, only one (Mississippi's Thad Cochran) remains locked in a race that's any kind of tossup. Still, it's not clear if the gulf between pragmatic career politicians like McConnell and the Tea Party rebels that have swelled his ranks can ever be bridged. On display behind glass at the McConnell Center, an institute for scholars at the University of Louisville, is McConnell's college thesis, written in 1964 and titled "Henry Clay and the Compromise of 1850." Clay was a brilliant senator from Kentucky, known as "the Great Pacificator," whose compromise delayed the start of the Civil War for a decade. He remains one of McConnell's political heros.

But the Tea Party considers compromise anathema, a feckless betrayal of principle. And just to make things more awkward for McConnell, the breakout star of the movement happens to be the junior senator from Kentucky. In one of his best-received lines at the Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, McConnell sounded like he was swallowing his words – though, to be fair, he always sounds like he's swallowing his words – as he acknowledged, "For the first time since Henry Clay, we have a Kentuckian who is a credible candidate for president: my colleague Rand Paul."

Johnny Cummings is the mayor of Vicco, population 334. Deep in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky, the town itself is little more than a half-block of storefronts that includes city hall, a post office and an old theater that's now a flea market. Back in the day, however, Vicco was "the Dodge City of the East," a wild drinking and gambling town servicing the booming coal industry. The name of the town is an acronym for Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Company; there were once about seven mines within a two-mile radius.

Even today, in the nearby county seat of Hazard – inspiration for The Dukes of Hazzard – open-top boxcars spilling over with coal line the railroad tracks. Some people drive around with all-black license plates that read FRIENDS OF COAL or bumper stickers with slogans like COAL GUNS FREEDOM – MINE EVERY LUMP! The winding two-lane roads up here offer lovely views of the mountains, as well as glimpses of sagging homes and trailers tucked into remote hollows, reminders of the desperate regional poverty that has vexed politicians for the past 50 years.

LBJ came to eastern Kentucky in 1964 to promote his War on Poverty. Four years later, Bobby Kennedy visited Hazard as part of a "poverty tour." Bill Clinton made a similar stop. Most recently, President Obama designated southeastern Kentucky as one of five inaugural Promise Zones – areas of entrenched poverty set to receive federal assistance focused on reviving the economy – a move which earned rare bipartisan support from McConnell and Paul.

Not much of this national largesse has ever trickled down to Vicco. When I stop by city hall at the end of the workday, I find Mayor Cummings in his cluttered office, just past a display case of vintage mining equipment. He's chain-smoking and sipping a mixed drink from a plastic cup. Cummings is 50 years old, with a lean, ropy build and signs of hard living around his eyes. Like everyone I meet in these parts, he speaks with a thick Appalachian accent. After a while, he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black T-shirt underneath that reads DEFEND APPALACHIA above a picture of a machine gun. Cummings grew up here. His father, a local political fixer, "one of those semi-Mafia men who had some businesses that weren't entirely legal" – John Cummings Sr. was eventually murdered, a case that's still unsolved – kept the family garage filled with pints of Wild Irish Rose and Kesslers. "I always thought politics was handing out bottles of liquor – that was how they'd get out the votes," Cummings recalls.

After spending 10 years serving on Vicco's City Commission, the younger Cummings was appointed mayor when his predecessor stepped down in 2012. The fact that Cummings was openly gay didn't strike him as a big deal. Everyone in town knew, had always known. Because of his father, his first boyfriend called him Mafia Princess. "He said that's how come I could go to the redneck bars and not get whupped, because my dad was such a badass," Cummings says. When it came time for an official election, Cummings, who is also the town hairdresser, received 75 percent of the vote.

Since then, he's successfully petitioned for government funds to repair the local roads, which hadn't been repaved in over a decade, and has begun work on a sewer system on the verge of collapse. Still, the town faces a major budget shortfall, as revenue from Kentucky's coal severance tax – levied on coal removal, with a portion of the money set aside for coal-producing communities like Vicco – has shrunk alongside the industry. Cummings is scrambling to make up the difference.

Under Cummings, Vicco has also become the smallest town in the country to pass an LGBT-anti-discrimination law. When the news broke nationally, 27 production companies called to entice Cummings to appear on their shows. He turned them down, all except a "People Who Are Destroying America" segment on The Colbert Report. Shortly thereafter, he says, he learned an important lesson when a state representative called to ask his opinion on an anti-gay bill wrapped in the mantle of "religious freedom": "I said, 'The way I look at it, bub' – 'cause this guy's an old friend of mine – 'if you can suck dick, you can praise Jesus.' Well, that's when I realized I was on speakerphone to half the fucking House. Now I have to watch what I say. That's why I'm not really a politician."

All of which is to say, Kentucky's political scene does not fit easily into the "red state/blue state" narrative. Democratic Gov. Beshear's popularity has soared with the wild success of Kynect, Kentucky's re-branded version of Obamacare. One out of 12 Kentuckians has already enrolled, which Beshear attributes to an aggressive outreach program and a no-frills, easy-to-navigate website. "Early on, we very quietly applied and took advantage of every planning dollar that the federal government made available," Beshear tells me. "We knew that our audience, from an educational standpoint, was not going to be the highest-educated. So we made the website pretty simple and direct. And then we tested it and tested it."

And yet a majority of state voters also tell pollsters they oppose Obama­care. Beshear told me a story about a guy who "listened intently" to a pitch from a government representative about Kynect at the state fair – after which, the constituent raved, "Man, this is great. This is so much better than that Obamacare!"

For generations, the powerful United Mine Workers union ensured that eastern Kentucky remained a Democratic stronghold. In more recent years, though, the GOP has successfully pushed a "war on coal" narrative that's turned many in the state against President Obama and the EPA. But even today, notes Sam Youngman, a political columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader, "east Kentucky Republicans are not cut-spending Republicans. They want their roads!"

The local economy remains "fucking dead," Cummings tells me – Kentucky has lost nearly 6,000 coal jobs in the past 18 months – but he has little patience for McConnell's war-on-coal rhetoric. "Mitch's problem is he's done too little, too late," Cummings says. "When I took this office – it's been two years now, and no one's shot me! – some higher-up political people told me, 'You need to get your town depression-ready.' They said during a depression, you have more drugs, violence, spousal abuse. Well, if they knew that two years ago, what the fuck were they doing? For as long as I can remember, the coal miners get raped. It's just a never-ending cycle for these people. So let's be honest and look for other alternatives."

Of course, the local populace, long accustomed to empty platitudes from Washington, have become savvy about fashioning their own alternative economies. Later that evening, I meet a kid named AJ, a tattooed 22-year-old who rarely looks up from his smartphone. At one point, he casually mentions how McConnell recently made a jaunt through eastern Kentucky and was greeted by several hundred game-fowl breeders and enthusiasts – cockfighters! They were protesting the senator's support of the farm bill, which included a clause making the practice a federal crime.

"I was part of that protest," AJ tells me. "I fight roosters." He says cockfighting is currently only a misdemeanor in Kentucky, and that it's one of the few ways left to make money in these parts. The pot for choicer fights can run upward of $40,000. Promoters from the Philippines, where cockfighting is still legal, have offered to fly AJ to Manila to learn his breeding secrets.

"If Mitch McConnell doesn't help us now, then we're going to drag him down into the gully with us on Election Day," United Gamefowl Breeders Association President Craig Davis told the Herald-Leader at the rally. "This will destroy Mitch McConnell."

Rand Paul had voted against the farm bill, so for the moment, Davis said, he was OK.

McConnell has a long history of currying favor by bringing home the pork – funding for military bases, universities, bridges, airports and an aging uranium-enrichment plant in Paducah described as "a barely functional relic." But the rise of the Tea Party forced McConnell to agree to a ban on earmarks in 2010, robbing the minority leader of much of his raison d'être back home.

Paul, on the other hand, is a master at making libertarian nonsense sound like reasonable public policy. In a speech last year in Detroit, Paul unveiled his so-called Economic Freedom Zones, in which economically distressed regions like southeastern Kentucky and the Motor City would be revived through a combination of lowered taxes and reduced regulation (as if less tax money would be helpful in a city like Detroit, where the streetlights don't work and the cops can take hours to arrive at the scene of a shooting; as if government overregulation is the only thing keeping Facebook from opening a satellite office in Butcher Holler).

I met Paul in a very different part of the state, at a GOP fundraiser at a posh country club in the heart of bourbon country, just down the road from the Maker's Mark distillery. His press liaison had invited me to introduce myself, but when Paul heard the words "Rolling Stone," his face went blank and he turned his back without another word. Fair enough – though, just a few days earlier, Paul had made national headlines by addressing students in Berkeley, still the heart of liberal darkness in the conservative imagination, so I'd imagined he might have thicker skin.

Up close, there's an appealingly unkempt quality to the junior senator, not quite adjunct-college-professor unkempt but in the ballpark: that hair, and the queasy complexion of someone who spent most of the previous night rereading Atlas Shrugged for the fifth time, or maybe writing a blog post about how we should return to the gold standard. His voice has a pleasingly Southern lilt; like Bill Clinton's, it's all scratched up from overuse. All of these qualities add to Paul's perceived authenticity, making him seem like a man of ideas who can't be bothered with the stagecraft of politicking. Tonight in Bardstown, working a crowd that couldn't get any more establishment – literally country club Republicans! – he's mobbed. Everyone loves a winner.

And at the moment, amazingly, Paul has become the Republican to beat in 2016. In March, he took first place in the influential right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll of presidential contenders for the second year running; that same week, he also topped a poll of Republican voters in New Hampshire. On his fundraising trip to California, where his libertarian message resonates with a certain strain of Silicon Valley-tech geek, Paul's talk at Berkeley signaled to the selfsame establishment his willingness to reach out to groups – in this case, young people – that the GOP has struggled to win over in recent presidential elections. Paul has made similar efforts with minorities, speaking at historically black colleges like Howard University.

For traditional Republicans, there are appealing aspects of Paul's economic message, to be sure – a way in which his idea-drunk excitability can feel infectious, the stoner-philosopher side of the pitch conveniently obfuscating its stale objectivist core. One could imagine some Machiavelli in the GOP messaging lab conducting a careful study of Paul's moves, wondering if this might be the first guy since Reagan who could make being a selfish prick somehow culturally cool again.

For neoconservatives, the only nightmare scenario worse than waking up on November 9th, 2016, to a President Hillary Clinton is the one in which they wake up on November 8th, 2016, and have to seriously consider voting for Clinton because she's far more hawkish than Republican presidential nominee Rand Paul. The fear is that Paul shares the isolationist views of his father, gadfly presidential candidate and retired Texas congressman Ron Paul.

For example, Rand Paul suggested in a 2009 speech that Dick Cheney supported the Iraq War to benefit Halliburton – which, for neocons, is basically the equivalent of discovering Paul's name on a MoveOn.org petition to try Henry Kissinger for war crimes. Like a crew of aging jewel thieves reuniting for one last heist, a rogues' gallery of Iraq War architects and cheerleaders has emerged from hiding with the sole mission of smothering any potential Paul candidacy in its cradle. Attacks have come from John Yoo, John Bolton, William Kristol (who called Paul the "spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican Party"), even Cheney, in the form of his daughter Liz, who defended her dad's honor when the Halliburton remarks surfaced by saying she wasn't surprised, since "Senator Paul often seems to get his foreign­policy talking points from Rachel Maddow." Ouch!

As for McConnell and Paul, they have a complicated history, to put it mildly. In 2010, McConnell hand-picked then-Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a moderate, Harvard­educated lawyer, to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, whom McConnell had essentially forced out of office, using his political machine to make Bunning persona non grata among the donor class.

When Paul announced he would challenge Grayson in the primary, he was a Bowling Green ophthalmologist with little political experience other than working on the quixotic presidential campaigns of his father and speaking out through a cranky and obscure anti-tax group he'd formed called Kentucky Taxpayers United. "I grew up in Owensboro, right down the road from Bowling Green, and I never heard of him until 2010," admits Youngman.

Paul trounced Grayson, raking in fundraising dollars from his father's legion of fervent supporters, including over 500 individual donations from California. He also received backing from the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, which has, incidentally, been supporting Bevin in his primary challenge against McConnell. The minority leader, who has never been overly precious when it comes to fine-tuning his positions, saw the writing on the wall and quickly embraced the younger Paul. He was rewarded during Paul's first speech on the Senate floor – when Paul launched into an extended attack on McConnell's beloved Henry Clay, while standing at Clay's old desk. Calling Clay's life story "at best a mixed message," Paul asked, "Is compromise the noble position? Will compromise allow us to avoid the looming debt crisis?" Midway through the speech, McConnell left the room.

Paul's rise was swift, in part because of the way he stood out from his Tea Party brethren. He was much smarter, for one thing – more than one political observer has told me that the best thing to happen to Paul's career has been Ted Cruz – and though there's a pedantic, lecturing quality to many of Paul's speeches, his obvious intoxication with his own quirky ideas, in a world in which deadening overcaution is pro forma, brought its own appeal, even for those who found those ideas wrongheaded.

At Berkeley, for example, Paul avoided much talk about social issues, where his positions would have certainly left him in the distinct minority. (Paul believes abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape or incest, and he once suggested that legalizing same-sex marriage would open the doors of the chapel to bestiality.) Instead, he focused on the areas in which his libertarian views placed him far to the left of even the president, drawing cheers with broadsides on the NSA and the surveillance state. He also attacked his own party. The GOP must "evolve, adapt or die," he insisted, referring to the party's inability to broaden its appeal. "Remember when Domino's finally admitted they had bad crust?" he asked, pausing for a moment to roll his eyes and give the audience a knowing look, before continuing, "We need a different kind of party."

In his desire to make this point in language college kids might understand, Paul could have picked any number of moribund franchises made relevant again – Apple before the return of Steve Jobs, the Batman movies before Christopher Nolan took over – but bad Domino's pizza crust? Was "Remember Jack in the Box after that massive E. coli outbreak?" too dated a reference? One wonders how Paul's speech went over with McConnell, who surely understands he is not meant to be the delicious cheese topping in this analogy.

And yet the 72-year-old minority leader needs Paul's mojo now more than ever. Thus far, his campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. At CPAC, McConnell shamelessly attempted to win over the crowd by hoisting a rifle over his head. An immediate Dukakis-in-the-tank moment, the stunt made McConnell appear simultaneously buffoonish and unhinged.

A week later, Team Mitch released a campaign video composed of nothing but silent images of McConnell working at his desk and tenderly rubbing the arms of elderly voters. The footage was meant for Super PACs (to get around the prohibition of directly coordinating with such outside groups, political campaigns have taken to making usable footage of their candidates publicly available on the Internet), but within 48 hours, McConnell had become the unwitting star of one of the funniest Daily Show segments of the year, as an obviously delighted Jon Stewart demonstrated how the B-roll footage – in particular, an unsettling moment when McConnell slowly turns his head toward the camera while flashing the dead-eyed smile of a ventriloquist's dummy – could be synced to any song imaginable ("Behind Blue Eyes"! "The Sound of Silence"! Bryan Adams' theme from Robin Hood!).

By the time #mcconnelling became a full-fledged Twitter meme, McConnell was forced, at a Louisville press conference, to unconvincingly pretend he found the whole thing amusing. "It's nice to have some fun occasionally," he muttered through that same whittled crease of a grin. Standing beside him, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, in town to give her leader's campaign a boost, added that it was "wonderful to go online and see so many of Mitch's smiling faces."

That morning, Ayotte and McConnell made a joint appearance at the University of Louisville. I arrived late for the event and ended up being denied entry by the Capitol police. Annoyed with myself, I wandered dejectedly to the McConnell Center, based in the sleek university library. Along with housing the senator's archives, the center also operates a basement museum dedicated to McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, the secretary of labor under George W. Bush, which I decided to visit in an attempt to salvage my outing.

Not surprisingly, I had the museum entirely to myself. I learned that McConnell contracted polio at age two, recovering only after years of therapy at a hospital founded by FDR; I admired McConnell's childhood baseball mitt, his fraternity paddle, an AK-47 clip given to him by a soldier in Afghanistan, all behind glass display cases. I saw no mention of McConnell's early support of abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, though there was an entire plaque devoted to the story of how he watched Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech from the Capitol steps as a young staffer and later agitated in favor of civil rights back home. There's also a photo of McConnell standing in solidarity with a group of coal miners; the senator has consistently voted with the coal industry, most recently with a bill that would stop the EPA from regulating coal-fired plants.

And then I heard voices. Briefly, I felt like an anthropologist who'd stumbled upon a rare tribe – actual Mitch McConnell enthusiasts, discovered in nature!

My expectations were at once dashed and dizzyingly exceeded. The person speaking turned out to be a McConnell Center staffer, addressing Ayotte, being given a private tour. Accompanying the group . . . McConnell himself!

I froze, feeling like Elvis had just crept up behind me during a tour of Graceland and asked for my honest opinion about the décor of the Jungle Room. Tucking my notebook into my pocket, I assumed my best "just a regular guy who digs Mitch McConnell so much he decided to stop by a Mitch McConnell museum on his lunch hour" expression. If McConnell was pleased by the presence of an admirer, he made no sign. Our eyes met, and he nodded and said hello but otherwise remained stock-still, like a Madame Tussaud wax likeness of himself, while Ayotte said things like, "Mitch, I didn't know you were in student government!"

To be fair to the man, watching someone feign interest in a museum devoted to your entire career is probably an incredibly awkward experience. He perked up only once, when they paused before a video monitor playing a loop of his old attack ads. "Depending on the level of interest, you can watch all of the different commercials from over the years," McConnell noted, a touch of pride in his voice.

After they left, I took McConnell's advice and planted myself in front of the television. In his earliest races, McConnell was a notoriously nasty campaigner, employing a young Roger Ailes, the future head of Fox News, to make an infamous ad in which his opponent was hunted down by a pack of bloodhounds. "My heroes?" a young McConnell asks in another video. "That's easy: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Sherman Cooper and Pee Wee Reese."

Cooper was a liberal GOP senator from Kentucky; Reese, a white Kentucky-born shortstop famous for his support of teammate Jackie Robinson. Hearing statements like that, one can't help thinking: At what point did his soul die?

I also wonder if they'll be adding a section to the museum devoted to the 2014 race. In 2012, to further prove his allegiance to the right, McConnell hired Paul's loyal aide Jesse Benton, to run his own re-election campaign. Last August, Benton was caught reassuring a conservative activist that "I'm sort of holding my nose for two years [by working on McConnell's campaign], because what we're doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in '16." Humiliatingly, McConnell did not fire Benton. When asked by Glenn Beck why he'd endorsed McConnell, Paul himself went silent, then joked, "Um, I'm here in Texas to endorse Don Huffines." As Beck cackled, Paul continued, "No, going back to Kentucky, uh . . . because he asked me. He asked me when there was nobody else in the race. And I said yes."

It's enough to almost make you feel sorry for the guy. "This is a once-proud man, reduced to begging," says news editor Joe Sonka of Louisville's LEO Weekly. "But Mitch knows without Rand, he'd be a goner. What do you do when, after 30 years, the only real power you have is money, and that's not working? You panic."

The initial source of McConnell's panic, the possibility of a Tea Party challenge from the right, turned out to be a paper tiger in the form of Matt Bevin. Personally, I found Bevin likable and interesting. But McConnell's massive war chest and political machine had prevented the campaign from ever taking fire. At the Lincoln-Reagan dinner in Murray, Bevin wasn't even allowed to speak. A Bevin campaign event I attended in Louisville, at a private home, only attracted a dozen people.

Bevin seemed to bemuse the small crowd by speaking fluent Japanese and talking about the months he spent after college bicycling cross-country from Astoria, Oregon, to Jacksonville, Florida. A devout Christian with nine children (four adopted from Ethiopia), Bevin made his money in investment management; his current holdings include, charmingly, the last remaining bell factory in North America, founded in 1832 by his great-great-grandfather, who invented the bicycle bell. (Bevin stepped in and saved the factory from moving overseas, a surprisingly sentimental, non-market-driven decision for such a professed Randian.)

Paul and Bevin would seem like natural allies; indeed, Bevin tells me he maxed out on personal campaign contributions to Paul's own Senate campaign. But Paul has mostly steered clear, aside from telling reporters shortly after Bevin announced his intention to run, "He's a good, honest, Christian man. I'm not saying anything bad about Matt Bevin."

To highlight the corruption inherent in career politics, Bevin likes to point out that seven of the 10 wealthiest communities in the country border the nation's capitol. In perverse proof of this very point, that's precisely the reason Bevin finds himself a pariah in Kentucky, where the state GOP apparatus was essentially built from the ground up by McConnell. A corollary to McConnell's pork-acquisition skills has been his consistent genius at raising money. A generous section of the McConnell Center museum is devoted to the senator's overt sabotaging of any efforts at campaign-finance reform; McConnell famously framed a U.S. News & World Report headline describing him as the "Darth Vader" of reform and hung it in his office. His tireless efforts to keep money in politics have arguably paved the way for today's barely regulated age of Super PACs.

Democrat Grimes has proved the more formidable opponent for McConnell, having spent the past several months relentlessly hammering away at his record and every misstep. She's also managed to achieve something close to financial parity with her rival, an impressive feat considering McConnell's fundraising virtuosity. Unseating a senator in a state as anti-Obama as Kentucky will still be an uphill battle, but as someone close to the Grimes campaign tells me, their polling shows a "visceral dislike" for McConnell, "and this is after he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on positive ads, including during the Super Bowl."

One night I attend a Grimes rally at a convention center in rural Hopkinsville, one of the most conservative areas of the state, where she draws about 450 supporters. Grimes, who practiced corporate law before entering politics, takes the stage to the sound of Katy Perry's "Roar." She has long brown hair and is wearing a yellow blazer over a black skirt and heels.

As a speaker, Grimes has a stiff, slightly Auto-Tuned delivery that's more Britney Spears than Katy Perry, but polling shows her leading McConnell among women by double digits. Her extremely limited press availability – I'm given 10 minutes with her on her tour bus while three handlers watch us and take notes – has led to gripes from reporters that she's not quite ready for prime time, and that her overly stage-managed campaign is a form of wish­fulfillment for her ambitious father, who was forced to resign from the Kentucky House of Representatives in the wake of a scandal involving his catering business' contracts with the state (his conviction was later overturned).

That said, if the point of the campaign is to defeat McConnell, submitting to annoying queries about her Ukraine policy makes little strategic sense for Grimes. With so much at stake, it shouldn't be surprising that the party standard-bearers on either side of the race are cyborgs programmed to repeat simplistic messages in ways easily absorbed by low-information voters, while likable weirdos in the mold of Bevin are relegated to the fringes.

Grimes also clearly wishes to signal that she's not too liberal for Kentucky. Her response to McConnell's CPAC gunslinging debacle has been to challenge the senator to join her at the gun range. And she's vociferously pro-coal. Grimes has called for investment in dubious "clean coal" technology and has pledged to "rein in overburdensome regulations." (Obama, meanwhile, has decided to take executive action to regulate coal plants, which are the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in the U.S.)

It's funny how the Democrats' own intra­party fissures are never portrayed with the same heightened "Battle for the soul of . . ." rhetoric as is the Tea Party rebellion within the GOP. But it's important to remember that the ideological gulf between a pro-gun, pro-coal Democrat like Grimes and the most liberal of her would-be colleagues is arguably more gaping. It was Democrats like Grimes, after all, who joined Republicans to block any meaningful gun legislation. And Gov. Beshear recently hired outside counsel to fight a court ruling overturning Kentucky's gay-marriage ban.

"Grimes and Beshear have to be palatable to Democrats in Kentucky, which is different from Democrats nationally," Youngman notes. "Things like coal, gay marriage – the rest of the party is far past those debates. But not here. There's a saying attributed to Mark Twain. Supposedly he said he wanted to be in Louisville when the world ended – because everything gets there 20 years later."

Back in Appalachia, mayor Cummings remained intent upon showing off his state's more "live and let live" side. After having his designated driver stop at a gas station to grab me a "to-go-fer" (which turns out to be a 40 oz. bottle of Budweiser and a Styrofoam cup), we make the 20-minute trek to the Summit City Lounge in Whitesburg. A group of bikers are hanging out front, large men with walrus mustaches and studded wristbands. One of the scariest guys greets Cummings warmly, slapping him five and crying, "What you up to, man?" The mayor drawls, "Oh, you know, gettin' drunk."

Inside, a thrash-metal band is playing at a deafening volume. It's a standing-room crowd, and we push our way back to an open-air deck. I say that I hadn't been expecting to see a heavy-metal band when I came to Appalachia. "We can always take you to hear some bluegrass," Cummings' deputy, Lana Combs Rose, notes dryly, giving her accent an extra-ironic twang.

"This place was dead," Cummings says, leaning on a railing and gesturing out at a darkened Whitesburg, which went from dry to "moist" (allowing liquor sales in bars and restaurants) when Summit City opened. "Alcohol tax built that bridge, that park." Cummings says the venue sparked a revival of the town's main street, which now boasts new restaurants, a bakery and an art gallery. Amelia Kirby, the co­owner of Summit City, is Cummings' inspiration when it comes to alternative economic development for the region. A young activist who also works at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center (advocating safety issues for coal miners), Kirby doesn't hesitate when asked what politicians could do for the region: a New Deal for clean energy, building solar-panel and windmill factories in the parts of the country hit hardest by changes in fossil-fuel consumption. Instead, to Kirby's chagrin, the big talk in these parts is replacing the coal industry with prisons.

As for Cummings, he's finally, reluctantly agreed, after dozens of offers, to sign a contract with a reality show. "I couldn't sleep for three days after I said yes," he says, sighing. "The only reason I agreed to do it is because the city will get production fees. We need so much, and to supplement what we're gonna lose from coal-severance money, this is the only thing I could think to do. These people were calling with fucking crazy, outrageous money."

Rose says locals are concerned the show "is gonna make us look like dumb hillbillies." But Hollywood money has already started flowing to Vicco. After the Colbert segment aired, one of the creators of Will & Grace sent Cummings funds to build a new playground. With economic stagnation the new normal and no interesting solutions coming from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party or the Tea Party, maybe turning our hardest-hit regions like Detroit and eastern Kentucky into reality shows is the ultimate free-market solution.

Speaking of laissez-faire economics, Cummings says Paul's people have been reaching out to him, and he met Paul himself during a recent visit to eastern Kentucky. "Rand Paul and Mr. Bestiality, right here," Cummings says, adding with a chuckle, "I was gonna offer him a free haircut and a puppy."

Cummings is not the only officeholder willing to play some heightened version of himself in a reality series. Politicians do so daily. Mostly, their shows air on CSPAN, Charlie Rose, Meet the Press, MSNBC, Fox. The seasons are largely scripted, but spontaneous moments do occur and, as in Vicco, "fucking crazy, outrageous money" is involved. Some of the participants, like Cummings, have even signed up with the altruistic hope of benefitting their constituents.

Reality series also have breakout stars – characters who thwart viewer expectations in ways that are pleasing or infuriating or laughable, or some combination of the above. Right now, Paul is the breakout star on the GOP network, the housemate who pushes everybody's buttons, the quirkiest bachelor, the guy on the island who won't stop walking around naked.

It could be his moment. Places like Vicco and Detroit are no longer freak outliers, and the ongoing desperation across the country has left openings for the libertarian appeal of Paul père and fils. That's the exploitable upside of income inequality: There's always a group of entitled people at the very top who want the government off their backs – the "makers versus takers" crowd – but if you pitch your sell just right, you can simultaneously play on the panic of hardworking people who are rightfully worried about the shrinking margins of the American dream and understandably might assume a defensive position, in which the noxious libertarian interpretation of liberty as "every citizen for themself" starts to make sense. Why share what little you've got with the people next door, let alone with strangers from another state or a foreign country?

For McConnell, the best-case scenario in the fall is simple: He defeats Grimes and the Republicans take the Senate. If everything breaks in McConnell's direction, one wonders how long the marriage of convenience between a newly empowered Senate majority leader and Paul will last. There are certainly practical advantages to the alliance. As McConnell's colleague John Boehner has learned in the House, being in charge isn't much fun when you're constantly beating down potential mutiny.

Meanwhile, the neocons are sharpening the knives. Videos of speeches in which Paul unfavorably compared the soaring deficits under Reagan to those under Jimmy Carter have surfaced. After Paul told The Washington Post "some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time," he was called out by Ted Cruz, and the conservative blog RedState asked, "Why is Rand Paul acting like a slobbering idiot?" Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens questioned Paul's minority­outreach efforts by pointing out the co-writer of Paul's 2011 book was a former shock jock who called himself the "Southern Avenger," wore a Confederate-flag wrestling mask and toasted John Wilkes Booth on his birthday.

But maybe the elites are worrying about nothing. Paul, after all, has plenty of experience working on losing presidential campaigns (his father's), and his own movement to the front of the pack of contenders seems to have given him a taste of something he fancies, and perhaps has even affected his thinking on the nobility of compromise. In his speech at the Bardstown country club, Paul didn't get into foreign policy or any of the surveillance-state concerns he'd raised at Berkeley. Instead, proving his agility at tailoring his message to the audience at hand, he stuck to fatuous, boilerplate complaints about government waste, the shutdown, the sequester, Obamacare – all talking points that could have been lifted from the Fox & Friends teleprompter on any given morning. He concluded on a Gipper-esque note of inspiration, one that, fittingly enough, was mostly about image: "If we can be the party that proclaims our message with the passion of Patrick Henry but also with the optimism of a man coming up the hill singing, then we will be the dominant party."

"Rand Paul is so different now," LEO Weekly's Sonka says. "Back in the day, he'd answer any question. But he's a very ambitious guy who thinks he's the brightest person in the room – maybe in the world – and that he's going to be the one who gets Ayn Rand into the White House. And he's playing the game to do it. The question is, if you get that good at playing the game, do you eventually turn into the person you're pretending to be?"

This story is from the May 22nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1209: May 22, 2014
x