More than half of Kentucky Republicans think U.S. Sen. Rand Paul should run for president in 2016, although they're divided about whether Paul should seek re-election to the Senate at the same time.
According to a new Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll, 33 percent of Republican respondents said Paul should run for president, while 23 percent said he should seek the White House and defend his Senate seat at the same time.
Meanwhile, 24 percent of Republicans want Paul to focus only on his re-election effort, while 16 percent said he shouldn't run for any public office.
The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA and in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, interviewed 1,082 registered Kentucky voters (including 404 registered Republicans) using automated phone calls and cell phone surveys for a closer look at the May 20 primary. The overall poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The GOP portion of the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Kentucky's junior senator, elected in 2010, enjoys a narrowly positive net approval rating, with 46 percent of registered voters approving of his job performance and 45 percent disapproving.
Paul's job ratings largely break down along partisan lines, though 39 percent of self-identified moderates approve of the job he's doing compared with 48 percent who disapprove.
Those numbers could give Paul pause if they hold through the year, indicating he might have his hands full in running to keep his Senate seat.
Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University and chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, said the fact that Paul's Senate seat could be competitive might give some presidential supporters cold feet.
"If those numbers are backed up by other polls, it means the 2016 Senate race is going to be awfully competitive, or at least there's the possibility of being competitive, so that might factor in," Lasley said.
Paul's favorable/unfavorable split is lower than what Lasley expected, but given Paul's high national profile, it's not surprising that voters are divided in their opinion of the state's junior senator, Lasley said.
"For somebody who's not only a statewide figure but a national figure, they tend to be a little more polarizing," he said.
Paul has already declared his intention to run for re-election regardless of whether he seeks the Republican presidential nomination, a possibility with which he is openly flirting.
An early issue for Paul is whether he can run for both offices, since Kentucky law contains a provision barring a candidate from appearing on the same ballot twice.
Paul's Republican allies in Frankfort are hopeful they can win a majority in the state House and change the law. Some also believe the state law banning a candidate from running for two offices at once runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
Paul polls better with conservative Republicans than moderate ones, with 36 percent of self-identified conservatives saying he should run for president, 27 percent saying he should focus on re-election and 27 percent saying he should run for both.
Among moderate Republicans, 29 percent think Paul should make a run at the White House, 20 percent think he should run only for his Senate seat and 21 percent say he should run for both.
Paul is strongest with voters ages 50 to 64.
Fred Hildebrandt, 57, of Louisville, said he hopes Paul will announce a presidential run, but only if Paul can simultaneously seek re-election to the Senate.
"I'd love to see him do that if he could," said Hildebrandt, a poll respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview with a reporter. "He's got to stay in the Senate because I believe he is a voice of reason."
Among 18-to-34-year-olds, the millennial demographic that Paul sees as key to any future success Republicans might enjoy, 41 percent approve of his job performance.
Thirty-nine percent of those millennials think Paul should run for president, compared with 23 percent who think he should run for Senate and 20 percent who think he should do both.
The impact of Paul's recent outreach efforts to black voters is difficult to read.
Overall, 29 percent of black voters approve of the job he is doing, while 57 percent do not. White voters approve of Paul's performance 47 percent to 44 percent.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com