It wasn't close and, frankly, few thought it would be. But the margin by which ophthalmologist and first-time candidate Rand Paul defeated Secretary of State Trey Grayson was nonetheless an eye opener.
With about 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Paul, the son of Texas congressman and and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, is getting 59 percent of the vote to Grayson's 35 percent. Grayson was strongly backed by the Republican establishment in Kentucky, led by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, as well as party luminaries such as former Vice President Dick Cheney.
It was McConnell who elbowed Sen. Jim Bunning (R) into retirement after two terms. Bunning is a strong conservative but didn't play well with others, especially McConnell, and many Republicans thought he might not survive this year's contest. A Hall of Fame pitcher with the Phillies and the Tigers, Bunning endorsed Paul and no doubt is relishing the message Kentucky Republicans are sending to McConnell.
The win by Paul, who has said he was a Tea Party candidate before there was even a Tea Party, is more good news for a movement that in recent weeks helped force Charlie Crist out of the GOP in Florida and denied Sen. Robert Bennett (R) renomination in Utah. While McConnell was backing Grayson, Paul was enjoying the support of Tea Party favorites like Sarah Palin and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who is becoming a power broker in his own right.
The Louisville Courier-Journal's Joseph Gerth summed up the problems Grayson faced:
While Paul talked about cutting spending, eliminating programs, eliminating earmarks and imposing term limits on members of Congress, Grayson had no choice but to embrace his "establishment" image and oppose Paul on at least some of those issues.
He argued, for example, that term limits would weaken smaller states such as Kentucky and that earmarks were necessary to make sure projects most wanted and needed were being approved. ...
Grayson tried to persuade voters that Paul's libertarian ideas were "strange" and "kooky." But judging from the election returns, Kentucky's Republican voters weren't buying it.
The election is likely to send shock waves through Washington, where establishment Republicans have been wary of the tea party movement.
McConnell has scheduled a GOP "Unity Rally" Saturday in Frankfort, where he will endorse Paul.
If the Republican battle was a rout, the Democratic contest was airtight. State Attorney General Jack Conway defeated Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo by just 5,000 votes — 44-43 percent — out of about 450,000 votes cast. Pre-election polls had the race close, and they were right. Mongiardo came close to toppling Bunning six years ago. There were few of the ideological divisions that were evidenced in the GOP primary; the differences among the Democrats was more about rural vs. urban.
Democrats haven't won a Senate race in Kentucky since 1992, when Wendell Ford won the last of his four terms.