Political Paddock: Rand Paul's 2015 could get very complicated

syoungman@herald-leader.com,Sam YoungmanMay 5, 2014 

It looks as if Rand Paul is about to escape a nasty primary that could have hurt his presidential ambitions, but there could be another one just down the road.

And Paul isn't on the ballot in either one.

If, as expected, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell handily wins his primary against Matt Bevin on May 20, Paul will have survived, relatively unscathed, a race that had the potential to force Kentucky's junior senator to choose between the Tea Party movement and the Republican establishment.

Because Bevin has yet to materialize as a serious threat to McConnell, Paul's endorsement of the senior senator has created only marginal blowback from the Tea Party faithful.

He might not get so lucky in the 2015 GOP primary for governor.

Over the weekend, Paul attended the Kentucky Derby and a fundraiser Sunday in Bowling Green with Cathy Bailey of Louisville, a former ambassador to Latvia and a potential candidate for governor.

Bailey told the Herald-Leader in December that she was "seriously considering" running for governor.

For those who spent this nightmare of a winter understandably hiding under a rock, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who is in many ways Paul's political godson, is very likely to run for governor.

The fact that Bailey is increasingly spending time with Paul and his wife, Kelley, has not gone unnoticed by many Kentucky Republicans.

Bailey confirmed Monday that she attended the fundraiser for Paul on Sunday, but she declined to respond to a question about what message her relationship with Paul might send about 2015.

For his part, Comer was unperturbed, telling the Herald-Leader on Monday that Paul "has always been good to me, and we are lucky to have the support of major national donors like Joe Craft and his fiancée, Kelly Knight, who were gracious enough to spend some of their time with me" at the Derby.

Comer also has enjoyed a significant amount of time with Paul during the past several months, and the two continue to be close allies.

People close to Paul note that Bailey was an early backer of his during the 2010 U.S. Senate primary, that she continues to be one of the senator's chief fundraisers and that Paul's appearances with Bailey should not be construed as an endorsement of any kind.

In an email Monday, Bailey said she was "honored" to have the Pauls serve as honorary chairs of a Derby-night fundraiser for Operation Open Arms Inc., a nonprofit that takes care of children whose mothers are incarcerated.

"Our friendship with Sen. Paul and Kelley Paul dates back to the primary of 2010," Bailey wrote. "I presently serve on the national finance committee for RAND PAC."

Although Bailey agreed in December with the estimate that she had "95 percent" decided to run,'' a significant amount of skepticism continues to dominate any conversation about whether the former ambassador under George W. Bush will pull the trigger.

Comer seemed OK with the idea of having another opponent — especially one who might split the Jefferson County vote. Hal Heiner, a former Louisville Metro councilman who entered the race in March, and Bailey are both from Louisville.

"The only thing better than running against one multimillionaire from Louisville is running against two of them," Comer said.

Joe Burgan, a spokesman for Heiner, didn't mention Comer or Bailey in a statement, focusing instead on the recent news that Toyota and Fruit of the Loom were moving jobs out of the state.

Burgan said that "as high-paying jobs continue to leave Kentucky, it's clear that we need someone with the maturity and real-world business experience to lead our state and make us economically competitive."

"Regardless of who else enters the race, Hal Heiner will continue traveling all over Kentucky, meeting with voters, and discussing how his success in running a business and his understanding of the economic environment will translate into attracting good jobs and increased opportunity for Kentucky families," Burgan said.

It might be an understatement to say that Paul would be in an awkward position if Bailey and Comer run.

And Paul might need a friend in the governor's mansion. It's worth keeping in mind that the General Assembly did not pass legislation introduced, by state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, that would have allowed Paul's name to be on the Kentucky ballot twice at the same time — running for U.S. Senate and for president — in 2016.

Paul's supporters think the state law can't constitutionally govern federal elections, but the matter is murky, at best.

If Bailey follows her pattern from the past few elections and doesn't run despite making noise, Paul has nothing to worry about. If she's for real this time, Paul could find himself pining for the good ol' days of Bevin vs. McConnell.

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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