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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.

These are just some of the issues leading tea party leaders to issue formal endorsements of Phil Moffett. Moffett has received endorsements from the Louisville Tea Party, the Bowling Green Tea Party, the Lexington Tea Party, former Alaskan Senate candidate Joe Miller and the Western Representation PAC, and the Northern Kentucky Right to Life.

Although Phil Moffett has no voting record to analyze, the tea party believes that he has a solid plan for leading Kentucky out of its dire fiscal situation. According to Louisville’s Jefferson Review,

Phil Moffett’s suggestion to the current budget impasse is pretty straightforward: find a solution that lasts longer than a year. As Phil says, we could repeal prevailing wage laws and cut education bureaucracy and we wouldn’t be back in the same place next year having the same discussion.

And on Louisville’s Mandy Connell radio show, Moffett blamed Kentucky’s financial issues on a lack of representation. According to Moffett, many of the decisions leading to the issues were made behind closed doors among the governor, state Senate president, and state House speaker — something that would not happen under his administration.

Although Kentucky’s County Republican Party Executive Committees cannot endorse in the primary, there’s been plenty of perceived preferential treatment of David Williams. The Louisville GOP, Kentucky’s largest county party, all but ostracized Moffett from their Lincoln Day Dinner in February. They stuck Moffett and his supporters in the back of the room, and failed to mention him when thanking all the attendees who had sponsored a table. Worse, they failed to introduce Moffett’s running mate, state House Representative Mike Harmon, when recognizing all House members in attendance. Their table sponsorship was the only sponsorship overlooked, and Harmon was the only House member they did not mention.

The Louisville GOP was notorious for treating the Rand Paul campaign with similar disrespect. However, volunteers working on Moffett’s campaign who also worked on Paul’s campaign say that the establishment’s treatment of Moffett is even worse than its treatment of Paul.

The establishment’s support of David Williams should be somewhat surprising because he has a reputation among many state representatives, include Republican reps, as a bully. Many reps say they’ve been threatened by Williams to vote his way or never see their bills come to the Senate floor.

Among other bullying tactics, a source close to the Moffett campaign told me, David Williams approached lt. governor candidate Mike Harmon with a warning that if Harmon and Moffett won the primary, Williams would make sure they did not win the general election. (So much for party unity.) Another source close to the Republican GOP claims to have heard David Williams say that if Moffett becomes governor, Williams would see to it that none of Moffett’s proposals make it through the Senate. These types of statements fit Williams’ reputation of not playing nice.

Note: a third candidate in the race is County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw. Though not a front-runner, Holsclaw, like Moffett, is from Louisville, meaning votes in their hometown will split, giving Williams the extra edge.

But as the only hotly contested gubernatorial election in 2011, tea party groups nationwide are taking notice of the Kentucky race and its Republican primary. The Western Representation PAC and its chairman, Joe Miller, recently pledged to donate $100,000 to Moffett’s campaign — a number that nearly doubles Moffett’s campaign treasury. It’s a far cry from the more than $1 million raised by Williams and his establishment supporters, but, as we’ve seen in other elections, the power of the tea party can stretch further than the dollar. And statements from some tea party supporters that they won’t support Williams even if he wins the primary make for a startling warning to Kentucky’s Republican voters.

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