FRANKFORT — Loyalists in Kentucky's Tea Party movement who helped propel Republican Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate last year say they share no blame for the GOP's poor showing in Tuesday's state elections, especially in the race for governor.
Instead, they point to the Republican Party establishment, which they say too often backs and fields candidates who don't adhere to their call for limited government and fiscal responsibility.
"I'm a registered Republican, but my reasoning for Tuesday's loss is that we saw an establishment candidate, Republican David Williams, get rejected by the Tea Party," said Lexington conservative radio talk show host Leland Conway. "The establishment part of the Republican Party of Kentucky needs to learn that its candidates have to be true conservatives for the Tea Party to line up behind them and to win."
Such comments reflect the Tea Party movement's continuing efforts to gain influence in the Grand Old Party, which dominates the state's delegation in Washington, D.C., but has won Kentucky's governor's office only twice since World War II.
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A year ago, Republicans in Kentucky were sky-high, celebrating a huge victory by Paul, the Tea Party movement's favored son. On Saturday, Republicans will gather in Louisville for their traditional Saturday-after-the election leadership meeting with little to cheer about.
The state Republican Party "is at a crossroads," said Cathy Flaig, former president of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party who volunteered and voted for Williams in his unsuccessful bid to oust Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
The Republican Party has shown consistent growth in Kentucky and now has more than 1 million members, but "some Republicans" sometimes forget their mission of conservatism and "that hurts the party," Flaig said.
"The Tea Party just wants to make sure the Republican Party stays true to conservatism," she said.
Sour election results are typically followed by a struggle for influence within a political party, said David Adams, a Republican operative who helped Louisville businessman Phil Moffett gain Tea Party support in his second-place finish to Williams in last spring's GOP gubernatorial primary.
"That's what the Republican Party had this week, and now a 'Tea Party versus Establishment' label is being put on it to explain the loss," Adams said. "What we're really talking about is that we're all Republicans but do we really stand for what the Republican platform stands for or do we just want to get people elected?"
State Rep. James Comer of Tompkinsville, who ran for commissioner of agriculture, was the only Republican who ended up in the winner's circle on Tuesday.
Comer will be introduced at Saturday's GOP meting by the party patriarch, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville.
Comer received more votes than any candidate — Democrat or Republican — in Tuesday's elections, Conway said, because he "ran from the beginning unequivocally as a Tea Party candidate and instead of worrying about party politics, he went to all the people and expressed conservative principles."
Citing Comer's large vote totals, Kentucky Republican Party chairman Steve Robertson expressed optimism that his party would continue to grow.
"We all have a common goal and need to band together," Robertson said of the Republican Party and the Tea Party. "We want and must elect conservative candidates and hold Democrats accountable to the people."
Adams said he thinks the GOP and Tea Party are "in the process of pulling each other up together."
"It's obvious we have a little more work to do on that, but I think you will see both coming together in 2012 to win the White House and more seats in Congress and the Kentucky General Assembly," Adams said.
Still, Adams wrote on his blog, Kentucky Progress, earlier this week that Comer "outpolled Williams' opponent, Gov. Steve Beshear, by 56,052 votes. That's way more than enough ticket-splitting to deny Williams a governor's pension."
He added: "I hope this puts to rest any ideas Williams had of taking control of the Republican Party of Kentucky in the new year. He would do well to go to the Senate and put action behind some of his newly discovered conservative campaign talking points."
To help address concerns raised by Tea Party activists, the state Republican Party leadership earlier this year made some rule changes to allow the participation of more people at local and state levels. The changes were designed to get more people involved in local GOP committees and improve communications through automated telephone calls, mass mailings and emails to announce scheduled meetings where officers would be selected.
But Adams dismissed the rule changes.
"We're going to have to go back in and rework the rules," he said. "They said they are opening up the process, but they really don't do that."
Adams noted that Comer wasn't the only Republican candidate on the ballot Tuesday who was closely aligned with the Tea Party. Two others — Bill Johnson and John T. Kemper III — lost badly because they lacked sufficient funding, he said.
"We still need to figure out how to raise money for all our candidates as a movement," he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats should not hope that their near-sweep Tuesday is a harbinger of similar changes on the federal level, said Don Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
"I don't think Democrats should be encouraged that the entire state of Kentucky will turn around and embrace Barack Obama, but it does show that the Democratic Party can win if they put forth good candidates," Gross said. "I would even say that extends to the Senate level."
Paul, who is viewed as a national Tea Party spokesman, saw the GOP's losses this week as part of the state's trend toward favoring Republicans in federal offices and Democrats in local offices.
"Kentucky is a conservative state," Paul said. "There has been an anomaly that many Democrats will vote for Republicans for federal office, but they think the state Democrats are conservative enough to vote for."