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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

Illustration by Sean McCabe
May 12, 2014 9:00 AM ET

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!"

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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.

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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.

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