By Alexander Bolton - 02/06/10 11:00 AM EST
The Senate Republican primary in Kentucky has emerged as a proxy battle between two leaders of the factionalized Republican Party, Sarah Palin and Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellObama administration officials ramp up push for Pacific pact Overnight Defense: GOP leaders express concerns after 9/11 veto override | Lawmakers press for Syria 'plan B' | US touts anti-ISIS airstrikes Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform MORE.
At stake is the direction of the Republican Party, which Republican leaders in Washington fear could turn off middle-of-the road voters if it lurches too far to the right.
McConnell (Ky.), the Senate Republican leader, has cemented his leadership of the party establishment in Washington over the past year by unifying Senate Republicans against President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObamas welcome Olympians to White House Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform Obama pushes to end solitary confinement; states led the way. MORE’s agenda.
But McConnell and other veteran Republican lawmakers have a delicate relationship with many conservatives now lining up behind Palin and the Tea Party because of how federal spending swelled under GOP rule.
The growing activism of conservatives around the country, including many longtime members of the Republican grassroots, has helped energize the Republican Party, such as in Massachusetts. But the indifference or opposition of Tea Party activists to candidates favored by Republican leaders threatens to upset the GOP’s carefully crafted political strategy.
Sarah Palin, who gave her handlers headaches during the 2008 presidential campaign, isn’t making things any easier.
She has thrown her support behind Rand PaulRand PaulLawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears GOP senators hit FBI on early probe of NY bombing suspect MORE, a favorite of anti-establishment conservatives such as RedState.com and Gun Owners of America, who is running for Senate in Kentucky.
Palin waded into the race despite it being widely known among political insiders that McConnell backs Rand’s opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
GOP strategists in Washington believe Grayson has a much better chance of winning the general election but Palin has channeled conservatives' frustration over “go-along-to-get-along” Republicans in Washington.
Palin’s not-so-subtle challenge to McConnell’s political authority shows the overall difficulty GOP leaders have in taming the resurgent conservative base, which has made Palin and the Tea Party newly powerful political forces.
McConnell has not endorsed Grayson formally but he has worked for the candidate behind the scenes. He contributed $10,000 to Grayson through a leadership PAC and hosted a fundraiser for the candidate in New York.
Paul, a career doctor, has made clear that he is running against the GOP establishment. He said in a CNN interview Friday that he could win the May 18 primary without the help of party leaders in Washington. Earlier, he declined to promise that he would vote for McConnell to remain Senate leader if elected.
Palin, who will deliver the keynote address at the inaugural Tea Party Convention this weekend, said her support for Paul is designed to shake up Washington.
“While there are issues we disagree on, he and I are both in agreement that it’s time to shake up the status quo in Washington and stand for common-sense ideas,” Palin said in her statement of support.
“It shows that Sarah Palin is independent and not deferential to party leaders in DC,” said Brian Darling of the Heritage Foundation. “You have a split, you really have a Republican Party that is divided and it shows in the Kentucky race where you have the Senate leaders supporting one of the candidates and Sarah Palin another.”
“It’s going to be a high profile battle between two leaders of the Republican Party,” he said.
Andrew Breitbart, the publisher of several conservative online sites, including Breitbart.com, said there is a struggle among conservatives over the direction of their movement and the GOP.
“On the side of the Republican Party, you have different branches of conservatism trying to figure out the direction in the age of Obama,” he said.
Breitbart said this urge to clean up the party has led to the rise of the Tea Party, a phenomenon jarring to leaders in Washington.
“The Republican Party is not used to people standing up and telling the establishment you are answerable to us. I sense they’re having a hard time dealing with that,” he said.
Breitbart said people in the Tea Party “love” Sarah Palin because “they sense she’s not beholden to the Beltway [and] they like her independent spirit.”
Republican leaders in Washington, in contrast, have had trouble winning over Tea Party partisans.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was denied an opportunity to speak at a Tea Party event in Chicago last year. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John CornynJohn CornynGOP leaders express reservations a day after 9/11 veto override McConnell opens door to changing 9/11 bill Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables MORE (R-Texas) was booed at a rally in Austin over the summer.
In Kentucky, Paul has emerged as the favorite candidate among many Tea Party activists.
Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University said “there are some differences between Palin and Paul but the common link is the Tea Party movement.”
Lasley said Paul was one of the key figures behind the organization of the Tea Party in Bowling Green and the movement propelled his candidacy.
“He credits the Tea Party movement,” Lasley said. “It gave him a forum.”
McConnell has to be careful not to take on Paul directly because it could antagonize the portion of the party base that views him coolly, even skeptically.
“A big chunk of the Republican Party doesn’t care too much for Mitch MConnell, they think he’s too much the insider and too much the earmark man,” said Al Cross, a political pundit and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
Many fiscal conservatives became disillusioned over the growth of government during former President George W. Bush’s administration. As a result, they sat out the 2008 presidential campaign, giving Democrats a crucial advantage.
A veteran Republican political operative in Kentucky estimated that as many as 60 percent of Tea Party activists in the state are longtime Republican activists.
“There’s a lot of overlap between Tea Party folks and the grassroots of the Republican Party,” said the source.
It’s questionable whether Tea Party conservatives could develop enough strength and unity to upset the leadership hierarchy in Washington, but they certainly threaten to play havoc in primaries.
One DC insider said that Palin may regret her support for Paul because the candidate has taken stands that could prove controversial among Republican primary voters, such as opposing the war in Iraq. Paul has drawn criticism for saying that detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp should be returned to their home countries. He has since recalibrated his position to say that Guantanamo should stay open for the short term and that suspected terrorists should stand trial before military tribunals and kept off U.S. soil.
“I don’t think Governor Palin knows very much about Rand Paul,” said a senior Republican aide who supports Grayson. “I can’t believe she thinks it would help her to support someone with the views he has.”
Kentucky political experts say boosting Paul may ultimately cost Republicans the seat in November.
“McConnell truly sees the prospect that the tea baggers could veer his party further to the right, far enough to the right to turn off moderates trending his way,” said Cross, using a derisive term for Tea Party activists.
“The Democrats best chance of winning the seat is for Rand Paul to be the nominee,” he said.