In Kentucky, the Establishment Fights the Tea Party ... Again

Kentucky’s 2010 Republican Senate primary gained national attention when tea party-backed Rand Paul challenged Republican establishment candidate Trey Grayson. That scenario appears to be playing out again with Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial race, pitting state Senate President David Williams against Louisville businessman, and tea party-favorite, Phil Moffett.

This 2011 election could not be more important considering Kentucky’s dire fiscal situation. Recently named by Forbes magazine the worst-run state in the U.S. (even over California!), Kentucky is basically a welfare state, getting 50% more money back from the federal government than it puts in. Plus, Kentucky faces large Medicaid budget gaps and high amounts of bonded debt, leading Moody’s Investor Services to downgrade Kentucky’s bond ratings just last week.

In lieu of fixing the budget, current Democratic Governor Steve Beshear and Democratic legislators prefer to roll over the debt to the following year, moving “$166.5 million of General Fund dollars from FY2012 to FY2011.” But the tea party wants to see legislators sort out the financial issues now, instead of continuing to pass it down to Kentucky’s children. The fiscal crisis has taken center stage with the tea party, making the governor’s race their main focus for 2011.

Republican primary candidate David Williams has served as state Senate president for the last 12 years, making him the establishment's preferred candidate. But because he was serving when Kentucky’s economy was going down the drain, some tea partiers see him as just as much of the problem as Governor Beshear. Since Williams took over the Senate, Kentucky’s bonded debt has nearly tripled from $3.5 billion to nearly $10 billion. And Kentucky’s pension fund turned from a surplus to $34 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Of course, Williams blames Governor Beshear for the debt. Since Kentucky’s House and Senate must approve Kentucky’s budget, however, much of the responsibility falls on Williams.

It’s not just the budget issues causing tea partiers to turn away from Williams. Williams has a record of voting in favor of tax increases. During his time in the Kentucky Senate, Williams voted to increase gasoline taxes, alcohol and tobacco taxes, and gambling taxes. Rand Paul once described Williams as having “drank the Democratic Kool-Aid” on taxes and budget shortfalls.

Williams has also voted in favor of several big government regulations, such as a statewide smoking ban. Most recently, Williams was under tea party scrutiny for supporting a bill requiring Kentuckians to get a prescription for medications like Sudafed. And although his 2003 divorce papers reported $36,000 in personal gambling losses, he’s acted as a staunch opponent of expanded gambling in Kentucky -- something that could help bring in more money for the struggling economy.